BWW Review: WHOSE BODY? at Lifeline Theatre
The first hints of autumn weather have barely touched Chicago, but with its season opener, Lifeline Theatre turns to that coziest of genres: the classic British murder mystery. Jess Hutchinson directs a revival of WHOSE BODY?, adapted by Frances Limoncelli from the 1923 novel by Dorothy Sayers. Though the English author and scholar is not exactly a household name for modern American audiences, Sayers counted C.S. Lewis among her friends and was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University. WHOSE BODY? marks the debut of her best-known character, Lord Peter Wimsey, a quirky aristocrat with impeccable taste in antique books, classical music, and fine wine--as well as a penchant for amateur sleuthing.
When a middle-class architect discovers a dead body in his bath, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez spectacles, Wimsey is called in to consult. This curious case soon becomes a double mystery when a prominent member of London society goes missing, and the official Scotland Yard detectives are determined to connect the two incidents. Wimsey must follow a trail of clues that bring him into contact with a host of entertaining stock characters: the flustered maid, the uncouth American railroad tycoon, the bull-headed policeman, the simpering socialite, and more. Alan Donahue's set cleverly accommodates a variety of locations by hiding cubbies in Wimsey's wood-paneled, book-lined drawing room; these open to reveal set pieces that indicate a bedroom, an office, a courtroom, and an open grave.
William Anthony Sebastian Rose II portrays Lord Peter Wimsey with charm and humor, clearly having mined the source material to recreate this character for the stage. For anyone who has read the books, Sayers' detailed descriptions of Wimsey's mannerisms practically leap off the page, and Rose nails his drawling speech, drooping eyelids, eloquent eyebrows, and graceful gestures. Caitlin McLeod and Anna Wooden's elegantly tailored costumes ensure that he looks every inch the aristocrat. Though some lines are lost through Rose's stylized delivery, overall it's a well-crafted performance. Wimsey's friendly banter with his faithful butler, Bunter (Scott Danielson), is reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster--though in this case, butler and gentleman are more equally matched in the IQ department.
A fine supporting cast join Rose, each playing multiple roles. Katie McLean Hainsworth shares a natural rapport with Rose as Wimsey's mother, the Duchess of Denver, from whom her son inherits his mischievous sense of humor and zest for adventure. John Drea, a senior at Loyola University, displays versatility doubling as Inspector Parker, the intelligent, hard-working police detective, and Mr. Thipps, the harried, absent-minded architect who discovers the body in his bath. Joshua K. Harris, Michaela Voit, and Tony Bozzuto give comedic turns in a variety of roles, while Bozzuto also plays Dr. Julian Freke, the smooth-talking psychiatrist who espouses some troubling views about the criminal mind. Though many of the minor roles veer into caricature, this tendency can be forgiven as a staple of the genre--especially in the hands of this entertaining cast.
On a more serious note, the play introduces a recurring theme from the Wimsey novels: the detective's struggles with PTSD, or 'shell-shock,' as a WWI veteran. A former army officer, Wimsey suffers from nightmares, hallucinations, and paralyzing guilt about the men who died under his command. In this adaptation, his shell-shock returns when he solves the case but cannot stomach the idea of sending another man, even a murderer, to his death. Hutchinson's staging hints at this plot thread early on, with eerie flashes of light that silhouette images of barbed wire, trenches, and dead soldiers through the set's back wall. These glimpses are brief enough to confuse audience members without previous knowledge of the Wimsey canon, though Act I culminates in a fevered dream sequence that more clearly sets up Wimsey's troubled conscience in Act II. Once the idea is fleshed out, it forms a sobering snapshot of the period between the two world wars, when the psychological effects of combat were first widely recognized.
WHOSE BODY? may not boast the most intricate of whodunit plots, but this atmospheric period piece offers plenty of entertainment. Wimsey fans will appreciate a faithful adaptation of Sayers' beloved detective. However, previous familiarity is by no means required; this strongly acted, creatively designed murder mystery is well worth a visit from anyone who enjoys the genre.
WHOSE BODY? plays through October 27 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago, IL 60626. Tickets are priced from $20 - $45 and are available at 773.761.4477 or LifelineTheatre.com.
Photo by Suzanne Plunkett
Review by Emily McClanathan