Somewhere between Agatha Christie and Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher is the legacy of one Frances Glessner Lee.
If her name rings a vague bell, chalk it up to the interest in forensic science that has grown in the wake of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and all of its TV series spinoffs. And Mrs. Lee’s interest in death investigations led her to create the intriguingly named Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, small dioramas meticulously modeled on actual crime scenes that she used for seminars she conducted in the 1940s and ’50s.
At a relatively advanced age, too:
“I was fascinated about why this woman, who was an heiress in her 60s, suddenly got into doing these crime scenes,” Bethel Park English teacher Cortney Williams said. “And I’m a huge mystery buff. In fact, my husband thinks I only watch British mysteries, which is the whole reason why we have Netflix.”
The combination of influences led her to undertake a challenge for the second year in a row: writing an original script for her students to perform under her direction for the high school’s fall play.
And so the world premiere of “Mystery in a Nutshell” will take place at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 in the school auditorium, followed by performances at the same time the next two nights. Many of the students who will appear onstage also did so for last year’s Cortney Williams original, “The Heist,” based on the true story of a 1927 armed robbery in Bethel Park.
The “Nutshell” universe is all her own, with characters’ surnames such as Beaumont and Wellington paying homage to British equivalents, with classic murder-mystery types such as shady heirs, a handyman and maid playing integral roles.
While the plot is set in 1997, flashbacks take the action all the way back to 1955.
“The biggest challenge this year is that I was trying to think theatrically of how you would show a character giving his or her version of events,” Williams said, and she arrived at the idea of using special lighting effects to do the time warp, so to speak. “I’m hoping it will play out as a concept.”
The script also presents challenges to the students as actors.
“For some of the leads, they’re playing people who are in their late 50s, but then they go back to when they were 9 years old,” Williams explained. And perpetuating the mystery aspect requires certain nuances:
“We’ve talked a lot about enunciation, and we’ve talked a lot about that you’re giving clues. So you have to think about how you’re delivering it, because it’s all based on dialogue, where the clues are coming from,” she said.
Helping to evoke a mid-century atmosphere for the applicable scenes are costumes either selected or made by Annemarie Heastings, a food stylist by trade who volunteers with her husband, Jim, to assist with school theater productions in Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair.
“I have some pieces that were my mother’s that I’m able to use with some of the kids,” she said, and others came by way of rental from Point Park University. But the majority are her creations, often from sources such as Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul.
“We use a lot of things from there, and I might alter them or change them or put together two different parts,” she explained.
Among the alumni of “The Heist” is senior Anna Miklos, who plays one of key “Mystery in a Nutshell” characters: “She’s the one who dies,” she’ll whisper. And she was glad to hear about the scenario for this year’s fall play.
“I was really excited, especially about the time period, because we have all these cool costumes,” Anna said. “And I was really excited to do the mystery genre, because I’d never done anything like that before.”
Abby Kauric, another senior, also is returning to act in another of her teacher’s originals.
“I think she did a tremendous job, honestly, because it’s a lot harder than people think it is to write, especially a mystery, where the dialogue is very important,” she said. “The plot, if it doesn’t make sense by the end, then you don’t have a show. And I think Mrs. Williams really does a perfect job of that.”
Junior Ryan Maerkle, who is serving as student director while also playing a part onstage, agrees about “Mystery in a Nutshell.”
“It’s an interesting story. I really enjoy how all the pieces tie in together,” he said. “There are a lot of plot twists and things you wouldn’t expect to happen.”
And he enjoys learning from Williams.
“She’s really easy to work with,” he asserted. “She’s really nice, but at the same time she’s able to keep control of the situation, really get the point across about what she needs you to do.”
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