The Lethal Art of Playwriting: DEATHTRAP at The Milburn Stone Theatre

by Ruth K. Brown

A classic has been defined as something that is judged over time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind. Many earlier critics have identified DEATHTRAP by Ira Levin as a classic comedy thriller. In their production at the Milburn Stone Theatre on the Cecil College campus in North East, Maryland, director Andrew John Mitchell and his cast and crew have made DEATHTRAP a thing of their own. Mitchell is an experienced director being given his first opportunity at Milburn Stone. Together Mitchell et al have taken this classic and used tried-and-true mechanisms to keep the tension building and the plot twisting while adding his own touches for the audiences to experience. Whether they succeed or not is something that each audience member will need to decide.

As newcomers to DEATHTRAP keep a sharp “ear” open as the plot unfolds and twists and turns, the inclusions by Mitchell will flow as easily as the language of theatre and mystery flow between the antagonists. Audience members who have come to expect certain things from their DEATHTRAP may find the inclusions jarring. The ease with which a long-time theatre-goer processes the known plot vagaries might be upset. This is not to say that they will find them upsetting to the action, but they may find them unsettling to their former appreciation of this play. First performed in 1978 winning a Tony Award for Best Play, author Levin created a theatrical rabbit-hole down which each Broadway production took its audiences until releasing them at the final curtain,  allowing them to breathe and process what they had just seen.

Mitchell obviously worked hard with the crew to establish stunning production values. The converted space at the Sydney Bruhl estate is, excuse the pun, loaded with exotic weapons of all types. Donated to add ambience to this production, SFC Ralph Denton, Sr. USA (Ret). provided myriad guns, maces, knives, clubs and other weaponry. Together with the heavy, dark wood, masculine furniture and Tudor bracing on the walls, the Bruhl study is a study itself … of someone steeped in violence, thrill and secrets. Eyvo Johnson with S. Lee Lewis did an excellent job in defining a space where one could easily imagine a murder. Lewis also worked well with Terry Edwards to provide the vital storm sounds in Act II that bring the DEATHTRAP climax along with it.

Now that the stage is set, enter the actors. Mike Ware brings a world weariness and also wariness to the character of Sydney Bruhl. While lacking the sophistication that is sometimes associated with a successful New York playwright, Ware still keeps people guessing as he moves through the production puzzle adding pieces of his own and placing those of others. Ryan Milliner, as Clifford Anderson, brings a collegiate feel to his role. He is young but doesn’t play naïve. Milliner brings his own gravitas to the role of Anderson so that when his various puzzle pieces are revealed, the audience can follow their development in his devious mind. Melanie Bishop gives us much to consider as the long-suffering wife, Myra Bruhl. While she loves Sydney she is also well aware of the psychotic underpinnings of his psyche and where his actions will take him if unfettered. She provides a persuasive and yet vulnerable Myra, and she is missed when she leaves the action on stage. Helga ten Dorp is played by a serendipitous turn of casting by Justine Quirk. Quirk’s portrayal of the psychic and her predictions serving as Bruhl’s ultimate undoing is reminiscent of the MACBETH witches insofar as they are initially confusing and meaningless but as the play progresses become more central and critical. The last character to appear is Porter Milgrim, played with aplomb and appropriate decorum by Dan Tucker. As the Bruhl lawyer, Tucker is both solicitous of his client and curious about process. The comedic final scene between Tucker and Quirk brings this production to an end with the right blend of comedy and frightful fear.

DEATHTRAP at Milburn Stone is something to see. It will satisfy first-time audiences and will leave experienced audiences with questions: theatre at its most educational and gratifying.

Written by Ira Levin
Directed by Andrew John Mitchell
January 17 – 26, 2014
The Milburn Stone Theatre
Cecil College
One Seahawk Drive
North East, MD 21901


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