TheatreFest 2013 closes out its summer fare with a murder mystery case by Agatha Christie, who gives us a deep cast of characters in her Hercule Poirot whodunit Black Coffee. The title comes from an American Blues classic of the same name and refers to the means by which our mystery murderer delivers the fatal blow.

Director John C. McIlwee assembles a fine cast of characters with familiar faces, along with a few who stretch their resumes with characters who render them unrecognizable at first blush. His cast includes TheatreFest regulars Lynda Clark and Eric Carl as well as a well-disguised David Klionsky and a cameo by John T. “Jack” Hall. The head-scratcher takes place on a superbly appointed stage designed by David Jensen, with period 1950s costumes and hair design carefully crafted by John C. McIlwee.

We are met at the curtain by a warm and friendly room, the library of Sir Claud Amory at Abbot’s Cleve, about twenty-five miles out of London. At curtain, Sir Claud (John T. “Jack” Hall) is entertaining friends and family at dinner, offstage right. We are slowly introduced to the full cast as they enter from the dining room, the first of which is Lucia Amory (Leanna T. Hall) and her husband’s aunt, Caroline Amory (JoAnne Dickinson). Caroline is worried about Lucia, who left the table under a strain. Soon thereafter comes Lucia’s husband, Richard (Jon Skinner), and Sir Claud’s niece, Barbara (Lynda Clark), both of whom are concerned for Lucia. It takes only a few minutes until Sir Claud himself arrives, with his personal secretary, Raynor (Eric Carl), in tow. With them comes the shadowy figure of Dr. Corelli (David Klionsky), an Italian doctor who only today arrived to visit Lucia, a long-lost acquaintance made in Italy.

These major players assemble in the library until we have emptied the dining room and Sir Claud retreats to his study for a few minutes. When he returns, he announces that the room is now locked and no one is to leave. Sir Claud further details his little ruse with the declaration that someone in the room has stolen from him a formula for military demolition, which he only recently completed. He announces that, momentarily, the room will go dark, and when it does, if the guilty party will place the formula, in its envelope, on the table before him, Sir Claud will forget the incident and all will be well. We are suddenly plunged into darkness and, moments later, when the lights are restored, the envelope is, as hoped, on the table. But there is a fly in the ointment; Sir Claud is dead, apparently of a heart attack.

Enter Agatha Christie’s premier detective, Hercule Poirot (David Ring), along with his faithful companion, Captain Hastings (Danny Norris). The two have been summoned by Sir Claud to apprehend the thief. Sir Claud had no idea it would ultimately be to nab his own murderer.

McIlwee has carefully created his characters with a superb cast, each member bringing to the stage a well-heeled and well-known resume. We find many familiar faces, including JoAnne Dickinson, fresh from another role in TheatreFest this month, Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will? Dickinson splits her time between here and Boston and appeared last year in TheatreFest and at Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. Along with her is Lynda Clark, who needs no introduction; she is a mainstay in TheatreFest. Making his second appearance in TheatreFest is David Ring, who stretches his resume with a studied portrayal of the detective Poirot, a feather in the cap of any actor and in this case a well-crafted characterization.

This thirteen-member cast brings to the stage a sumptuous fare of mystery and intrigue, giving us a superb ensemble and making a fine tapestry, as each actor gives us another piece of a complicated and entertaining jigsaw puzzle, each one giving his work to complete the whole picture. McIlwee uses each member of the cast to complete a terrific night of theater, and concludes TheatreFest 2013 with a bang.

Black Coffee runs through June 29. Make your reservations now because shows are selling out, and TheatreFest patrons can receive discounted tickets to NCSU’s regular 2013-14 season.  For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.

Editor’s Note: We are grateful to Brook North for her note of 6/23/13 reminding us that “Black Coffee” (the song) post-dated Black Coffee (the play) by nearly 20 years. “In the first paragraph Mr. Hall states ‘The title comes from an American Blues classic of the same name and refers to the means by which our mystery murderer delivers the fatal blow.’ I thought Mr. Hall would like to know that while the play is certainly named after the method of delivery for the fatal poison, it has nothing to do with the Blues song by Francis Burke with lyrics by Paul Webster. The song ‘Black Coffee’ was published in 1948 and charted in 1949 as sung by Sara[h] Vaugh[a]n.  The play ‘Black Coffee’ was first produced in 1930, 18 years before the song was written.” (Here’s the song, sung by the great lady: