|Isabella Steele, Les Ico, and Kira Smolev|
By Tina Arth
HART (Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre) is in its sixth year of offering “Page to Stage,” a competition among local playwrights for the opportunity to see one of their new, original works fully produced on the HART stage. This year’s selection is Shelf Life, An Adam and Cora Murder Mystery, under the direction of William Crawford. Author William Ferguson’s entertaining whodunit has drawn a fine cast of actors brave enough to workshop an unknown product, and they do a nice job of bringing Ferguson’s vision to life.
The story revolves around events at Shelf Life Bookstore, owned by siblings Adam and Cora Vance. The store is on the verge of bankruptcy, but the pair hopes to resurrect its fortunes by bringing in a wildly popular mystery writer for a book signing. Inclement weather and old wiring conspire to cause a power failure at the height of the event, and the author’s murder during the blackout derails the promotion. Adam and Cora, aided by aggressive and seductive reporter Maggie Gloss, set out to identify the killer before news gets out and completely demolishes their hopes of saving the store. There are plenty of the usual suspects (plus one stereotypically clueless cop) – the author’s husband, agent, former agent, a determined Hollywood producer – as well as some less obvious candidates like a local dermatologist and a lawsuit-happy customer. All is, of course, revealed at the end – and I give the author and actors credit for keeping me in the dark until the last scene.
Les Ico brings his usual comedic flair to the role of Adam; his mobile face and quick-change emotions create an entertaining mix of gregarious shop keep, worried man, cheery optimist, love-struck suitor, and man on the edge as he frantically tries to keep the peace and save the store. As sister Cora, Isabella Steele is the complete opposite – a dour, antisocial pessimist in serious need of an anger management class. Steele’s physicality work fine – she rarely looks up as, shoulders hunched, as she grimly strides around the store. However, she raises her voice a bit too often and too quickly, even for someone in the grip of frequent rage – a little modulation would go a long way in establishing Cora as a fully realized character. While she is angry at the world, Cora’s particular target is reporter Maggie Gloss (Kira Smolev). Smolev, although less volatile than Steele, still fights back quite effectively – and she is able to quickly change gears when the script calls upon her to beguile young Adam.
Among the rest of the cast, special props must be given to Karen Huckfeldt (as the irate customer Sheila Noisman). Huckfeldt is abrasive, pushy, entitled – the kind of customer everyone in retail has learned to hate – and she captures the role perfectly. Huckfeldt and Ico have some great moments together, but Kaye Burnett (as dermatologist Harriet Price. M.D.) gets the honor of really putting Noisman in her place with one elegantly delivered insult.
Director Crawford also designed the set (primarily a simple backdrop of trompe l’oeil bookshelves that serves as an appropriate setting for both lobby and reading room in the bookstore). Author Ferguson similarly serves double duty as light and sound board designer and operator – in a show littered with lightning strikes, thunder, and blackouts he has little time to enjoy the audience reactions.
As is often found with “Page to Stage” and similar premieres by local authors, some places in Shelf Life cry out for the services of a skilled script doctor to shine an outside light on problems in the play’s internal logic. However, the HART cast and production team have done a solid job of bringing Ferguson’s light-hearted mystery to an appreciative audience. For the past six years, HART has done a real service to both authors and audiences by offering them a place to share and celebrate the rich creative potential of local playwrights and community theatre.
Shelf Life is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through July 29th, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.