Johannah Blackman plays Laura (above, seated) whom her philandering fiancée Shelby Carpenter (Tyler Johnstone) treats as a possession. WHITTLING FOG PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO

Sexism, the price of success explored in mystery play

BLUE HILL — Murder most foul is afoot at the Town Hall Theater, where the New Surry Theatre opened last week the mystery drama “Laura,” based on progressive novelist Vera Caspary’s 1943 suspense story by the same name.

Movie buffs are probably familiar with the 1944 film noir version of “Laura” with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, but the mystery “Laura” came first and Caspary also co-wrote the play based on the psycho-thriller.

Director Robin Jones says the play, knee-deep in a grisly murder, focuses more on the relationships between the title character Laura Hunt (played by Johannah Blackman) and the men who revolve around her.

“I picked this play because it seemed relevant in this ‘Me Too’ era where women are refusing to be subjected to male fantasies about who they are and their outright abuses,” Jones said at a recent rehearsal. “In the play, all the men in Laura’s life project their own fantasies on her — even when it appears she has been murdered.”

Brooksville artist Annie Poole painted the portrait of Laura Hunt as part of the set design.

On stage, the actors are running through Act 1 and those fantasies the director talked about are very apparent. Mark McPhearson, the detective investigating the crime (Bryan Lescord) has becomes infatuated with a portrait of Laura, hanging over the mantel, reading into her beautiful image every ideal he has of the perfect woman. Hunt’s fiancé, Shelby (Tyler Johnstone) a volatile man with a thin veneer of Southern gentility, sees her as a precious possession while her friend Waldo (Randall Simons), an effete and clever newspaper columnist, regards Laura as a lovely but unfinished work of art that needs his finishing touches to complete.

Danny Dorgan, a teenager who lives with his mom in the same apartment building as Laura, shares the murdered woman’s love of jazz. He’s a teenager and, of course, deeply and impossibly besotted with this sophisticated and kind older woman. Danny’s mother (Vanessa Hawkins) has a very different but equally unreasonable opinion of Laura. Only her housekeeper Bessie (Leanne Nickon) seems to have uncomplicated affection for her employer, but who knows? It is a murder mystery, after all, and this is only the first act.

Jones says he handpicked his cast without the benefit of auditions.

“Convincing them all that they really wanted to do this is probably the best thing I did for this play,” he says, adding that like NST founder Bill Raiten, whom he studied with, he believes good casting is at least half the battle.

This was especially important, he says, as he does have a demanding day job at The Grand Auditorium and he needed experienced actors who could hit the ground running and did not need a great deal of direction to discover their characters and motivations.

Bryan Lescord (left) plays the role of detective Mark McPherson while Tyler Johnstone is Shelby Carpenter in New Surry Theatre’s production of “Laura.”

“Telling them to hold an expression a little longer, or move a little to the left or right is pretty much all I have to do,” he says, although this claim is somewhat belied by the copious notes he is taking as he watches his cast perform.

Still, this run-through looked pretty solid for what is traditionally known in theater-speak as “Hell Week.”

“Yeah,” he says, shaking his head in wonderment, “in this case it’s more like heaven week.”

“Laura” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 9-10, Saturday-Sunday, Nov. 17-18, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11.

Tickets cost $18 per person and $15 for students and seniors.

To reserve seats, call 200-4720 and visit

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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