Based on Ellery Queen’s 1942 novel of the same name, American playwright Joseph Goodrich’s Calamity Town is everything idyllic about small-town America with the exception of one small thing – murder.
Enjoying its world premiere at Vertigo Theatre, Calamity Town tells the story of mystery author Ellery Queen (Tyrell Crews) who travels to the fictional town of Wrightsville, USA to work on a new novel. In order to properly study the community and its residents, Ellery uses the name Ellery Smith to conceal his true identity from the townspeople. (In real life, Ellery Queen is itself a pseudonym for cousins Frederick Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee!).
Once in town, Ellery decides on renting Calamity House for the duration of his visit, fascinated by the history behind the supposedly jinxed home. The story goes, Jim Haight (Curt McKinstry) ran out on Nora Wright (Julie Orton) on the couple’s wedding day, disappearing for years. Ever since then, Calamity House, a name given by the townspeople, has sat empty beside the Wright family home.
Empty until Jim returns, unannounced, after three years away.
Jim and Nora marry, much to her mother’s chagrin, but their marriage is soon disturbed by a sinister discovery. Ellery and Nora sister’s Patty (Lindsey Angell) find letters that suggest someone is going to poison Nora.
Directed by Craig Hall & Nathan Pronyshyn, Goodrich’s adaptation of Calamity Town feels very similar in tone to Our Town by Thornton Wilder, a contemporary of Queen. Like the people of Grover’s Corner, the cast, acting like a chorus, establish details about the town of Wrightsville, and other narrative points. John Webber’s minimalist set reinforces the similarity between both works, as does Jamie Nesbitt’s slick projection work. In place of set pieces, Nesbitt’s projections display the various locales around town, zooming in for interior scenes when necessary. The projections are not only visually fascinating, but also effective in creating smooth, cinematic scene transitions.
While Ellery and Patty’s investigation is central to the plot, there is a strong emphasis on the various relationships between characters – much like Our Town. Audiences expecting a drab murder-mystery will be pleasantly surprised by the show’s genuine humour, which a few times leans awfully close to sit-com territory.. A good deal of the play’s humour comes from Ellery’s Big Apple wit, or arrogance depending who you ask, that fails to properly adjust itself for life in the easygoing town of Wrightsville.
Although the mystery itself is fairly thin, Hall & Pronyshyn manage to stage Queen and Patty’s investigation in a highly engaging manner. At various points, details of the investigation are examined via tableaux, or frozen picture, where Queen points to the particulars of the scene. Hall & Pronyshyn’s direction is abundant in theatrical play, with hints of cinematic influence, resulting in an enchanting production that hooks the audience from the start.
Crews’ charm is certainly a highlight in this group of outstanding talent, but it’s Angell who really stands out in the mix. Angell’s pep as the youngest Wright daughter is reminiscent of another fictional small-town character – Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Patty is much older, of course, but the same rebel energy is there. In any case, Angell is wonderfully entertaining, especially when she plays against Kyle Jespersen’s hot-headed Carter Bradford. Angell and Crews make an exquisite pairing. Chris Hunt and Karen Johnson-Diamond are delightful as John and Hermione Wright. Both veteran actors really get a chance to display their comedic chops in not just their primary roles, but also secondary roles. (Johnson-Diamond gets right just about every dance/drama teacher ever).
Contrary to its name, Calamity Town is anything but disastrous. What Vertigo Theatre has here is a real winner. Gifted with a stellar cast, Hall & Pronyshyn’s ingenious staging add layers of theatrical excitement to an already brilliant adaptation by Goodrich. A must-see.
Joseph Goodrich’s Calamity Town runs Jan 23 – Feb 21 at Vertigo Theatre.
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.vertigotheatre.com/calamity-town/