The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem is back to performing and surely off to a running start! Directed by UNCG alum Ron Law, the second production of their 87th season, Murder on the Orient Express, was received with a lively pre-show reception, a house packed to the brim (after checking vaccination status at the door), and a well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of the night. Especially after a year scant of performances, I was delightedly surprised to see an audience of seasoned regulars, families spending the evening together, and newcomers of all ages.

With the eager audience settled, Act One begins well before any characters make their way onto the Orient Express. Misty lighting, anticipatory music, and sound of a mother coaxing her young daughter into bed enwrapped the audience. The girl (whom we later learn is named Daisy Armstrong), finally heeds her mother’s wishes and makes her way to sleep. Seemingly safe in her room, Daisy’s rest is interrupted with the shadow of a man standing in her doorway (depicted by two illuminating screens elevated on both sides of the stage). Her panic is heard only for a moment before the man approaches and Daisy’s screams quickly morph into the squealing whistling of a train.

Dark once again, lead actor Ralph L. Shaw silently stepped on stage into a spotlight as Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective. Ruminative and vexed, Shaw delivered Poirot’s opening monologue, setting the scene for the most troubling case of the detective’s distinguished career. Shaw exits, the lights warm up the stage, and one after another, the audience is introduced to the myriad characters of the train-bound cast. Like independent caricatures, each character seems more peculiar than the last. The Scottish Colonel Arbuthnot (Jeremy Engel) and his lovesome, English traveling partner, Ms. Mary Debenham (Jessica Perry) are engaged in a hushed discourse revealing their apprehension surrounding the trip ahead of them. Nearby, the raucous, Midwestern divorcée Helen Hubbard (Karen Bell-Chandler) accosts the young American assistant, Hector MacQueen (Kevin Rapier). Upon finding another American, she hints that they must stick together in the foreign setting of Istanbul where they are boarding. After nonchalantly observing this motley crew, Poirot is greeted by longtime friend and owner of the Orient Express, the excitable and animated Monsieur Bouc (Matthew Cravey), who insists the detective join him on their way back to Europe. Unable to refuse such a generous offer, Poirot follows the Monsieur to the train station.

On the platform, we meet the exiled Russian noble, Princess Dragomiroff (Robin Voiers), and her devout and homely companion from Sweden, Greta Ohlsson (Ellen West Law); the learned and captivating Hungarian, Countess Andrenyi (Joyner Horn); MacQueen’s boss, the brutish American businessman Samuel Ratchett (Bob Montle); and the amiable Frenchman and helmsman of the journey, Conductor Michel (Rob Taylor). (Special mention must be made of dialect coach Leah Elyce Roy’s work in cultivating a truly distinct and complex cast of characters.) Mystery and predicament set in before boarding the train as we learn that the disagreeable Samuel Ratchett is the recipient of several alarming notes threatening his life. Taking note of the eclectic array of passengers and an intuitive sense of tension, Poirot and Monsieur Bouc board the Express.

It doesn’t take long before comedy and drama ensue aboard the train. Facilitated by an expertly engineered rotating set design by Joel McKenzie, the caper unfolds: We learn of a secret courtship between the Colonel and Ms. Debenham, the tumult of their romance and the clandestine nature of their trip portrayed by Perry’s nuance of expression. The truth of the Countess’ identity unravels with a passionately charged and moving performance by Horn. Mrs. Hubbard bears witness to a uniformed intruder, her unruly antics performed with spectacle and irresistible hilarity by Bell-Chandler. And of course, true to Agatha Christie’s best stories, we get a case of murder.

For the first and last time on their perilous journey, Poirot gathers all the passengers. From beginning to end, Poirot finds no shortage of suspects among the cohort. Supported by an outstanding cast, Poirot unravels the web of artifice and deceit spun by the very passengers he’s trying to save. Following a compelling monologue from Bell-Chandler at her character’s climax, Poirot, a lawful neutral through-and-through, is forced to wrestle with the condemning truth he discovers.

True to the writing of Agatha Christie’s time-tested whodunit, the Little Theatre’s run of Murder on the Orient Express was rife with drama, humor, mystery, and fantastic variety. After a year deprived of the performing arts, it felt special and refreshing to enjoy the successful retelling of a classic. The audience was eager to laugh, gasp, and applaud the cast as reward for their splendid artistry. Murder on the Orient Express is certainly a worthwhile production to be enjoyed by all audiences.

Murder on the Orient Express continues through Sunday, October 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.