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Grand Rapids Civic Theatre Stages Murder On The Orient Express

Despite a snag or two, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's production of the Agatha Christie classic brings high drama in the old style.

/Hercule Poirot (Jason T. Morrison)/Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Sherlock Holmes was so popular that Arthur Conan Doyle, his creator, having killed the detective (in "The Final Problem," 1893), later ended up resurrecting him, compelled by the demands of the public and barrels filled with money. Nearly as beloved as Holmes is Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's fussy, fastidious, Belgian-born detective. She created him in 1920. Ten years later, she found him insufferable; she described him as a "creep." But he was a beloved creep. She would write about him until 1975, one year before her death.

Among the best-known of the Poirot novels is Murder On The Orient Express (1934), which tells of a murder that took place on a full train - a murder any number of people might have had reason to commit. A play based on the novel is onstage at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre through May 5. Friday, April 26, the night I attended, was to have been the run's second show, but a water and power outage the night before pressed it into the premiere position.

The stage design takes full advantage of the period, embracing the deep beauty of art deco. Whether the characters onstage are walking through a train station, listening in their rooms to music (by choice or not), or sitting in the dining car, they're surrounded by elegance, a backdrop against which the murder we all know is coming manages still to shock.

Onto that stage steps Hercule Poirot (Jason T. Morrison). The detective has reached the stage of his life in which he need not go on the hunt for cases; indeed, he only takes the work that interests him, and his standards for interest are high. No, all he intends to do is take the Orient Express from Istanbul to London. But when a particularly grating passenger is found stabbed to death, he finds he has an investigation on his hands.

Among the joys of the story that follows is how Poirot suffers not from a paucity of clues but a bounty of them. He practically can't walk without tripping over another one. And the connections between the victim and other riders appear endless. It seemed everyone had a reason for hating the murdered man. But who killed him?

A technical issue ground the halt for twenty minutes or so. Afterward, maybe spooked by the event, some actors seemed hesitant; the occasional line was flubbed. But momentum took over, and soon the play surged ahead, as if hovering above the track itself. In a show filled with good performances, Morrison was great. He captured Poirot's disciplined politeness perfectly, as he did the steel concealed behind the funny mustache. Morrison's investments into the role of earnestness and dignity paid off handsomely.

Christie and the play have some fun with the fact that people act and sound differently than one another; Greta Ohlsson (Hayley Folstein) is devoutly religious and inarguably Swedish; Helen Hubbard (Sheri Beth Dusek) is brassily and boldly American. Both women manage the pivot from comic relief to more fully human well, reminding us that, while this is entertainment, it's more than that, too. Poirot lets daylight in on the crime, but there are other mysteries, ones beyond even the fine mind of our fussy Belgian detective. 


Updated, 12:41 p.m., 4/29/24, correction of Jason T. Morrison's name in photo caption.

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