NEW MARKET — The beloved British mystery author Agatha Christie wrote 66 novels in her lifetime, many of which were adapted into stage productions. But Christie, one of the best selling novelists of all time, wrote just one original play.
The Rouss Center for the Arts in New Market is performing that play, a psychological thriller written in 1958 called “Verdict,” which opened last night at 7 p.m. Additional performances will be held tonight at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., as well as next weekend, July 19-21, at the same showtimes.
“I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie,” said director Gary Hines, who directed Christie’s “The Mousetrap” at Theatre Shenandoah in Edinburg two years ago.
The play centers on Professor Karl Hendryk and his wife, Anya Hendryk, who is an invalid suffering from a form of sclerosis, which is the root of her misery.
“One of the professor’s students takes an interest in her and that’s kind of where the tension begins,” Hines said.
Aside from not being adapted from a novel, “Verdict” is also unique in that it is not the usual “whodunit” mystery for which Christie is so well known. Instead, the audience will know by the end of Act I who the murderer is while the characters in the show are left to grapple with the murder and much more.
“It’s not just figuring out who did it,” Hines said. “It’s also for them to process certain issues that they have within themselves … It’s more of a psychological drama.”
Sean Prunka, 48, of New Market, is playing the role of the professor. This is his first time acting in a Rouss Center production, having previously acted in Schultz Theatre plays when it was located in New Market.
The role has come fairly easily to Prunka because of how much he can relate to his character.
“I’m really like Karl in a lot of ways. We’re both men of principle and sticking to our beliefs and sometimes, unfortunately, that’s at the expense of the individual so, I can relate to him,” Prunka said. “His best qualities are things that I see about myself that I strive toward and his worst qualities are things that I say about myself and try to avoid.”
Prunka’s biggest challenge, he said, is distancing himself from his character when he’s on stage.
Joanne Thompson, 53, of New Market, is playing Lisa Koletzky, Anya’s cousin and caretaker. This will be Thompson’s second show at the Rouss following her dual roles in “Virgil Wins The Lottery.” Thompson was also involved in Schultz Theatre before it moved.
“I just enjoy being on stage — period,” she said. “It’s truly my happy place.”
In “Verdict,” Lisa is a trained physicist who gives up her career to live with the Hendryks and help take care of her ill cousin.
“They grew up together, they’re really good friends,” Thompson said. “And there’s also an emotional connection between Lisa Koletzky and Karl Hendryk. There is no infidelity, but there is a connection there that she also puts aside for the sake of her cousin because she loves her very much.”
Thompson describes Lisa as seeing the world in black and white without any shades of gray, which contrasts with her idealistic husband, who tends to see the best in people. Thompson’s goal is to show Lisa’s layers and to “try to bring out all the subtle nuances so the audience can see all of her conflict underneath the exterior that she presents to the world.”
“Verdict” is much different from the light-hearted comedies that Rouss Center audiences are more familiar with. Thompson said the young community theater company wants to show the versatility of its actors.
“There’s a few other plays on their agenda for the upcoming year that will show that versatility,” she said. “We like comedies, but here’s some stuff to make you think. Here’s some stuff to make you examine who you are and here’s some stuff to make you laugh, and here’s some stuff to make you cry. Sometimes you’ll get all of that in one play.”
The Rouss Center is slated to perform the stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” next month.
While “Verdict” is a psychological thriller, Thompson said the play has aspects of broad appeal.
“It has a lot of the struggles of human life — the feelings that Karl and Lisa have for each other but they deny them and don’t speak of them because of their mutual devotion to Anya,” she said. “There’s a housekeeper who is pure comic relief … I think there will be a little something for everyone.”
When audiences leave the theater, Prunka hopes they are able to read between the lines of the play.
“If there is a twist, it is up to the viewer to find,” he said. “I believe there’s a lot of subtext to the play. It is not overtly in any of the lines and it’s up to the actors to portray certain things that might be construed as a plot twist.”
Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors. Children under 4 are free. For more information, visit www.rousscenter.org or call 888-341-7313. The Rouss Center for the Arts is located at 9357 N. Congress St.