Mrs. Christie

written by Bill Kopp

a new take on acclaimed mystery author's disappearance

Surpassed only by William Shakespeare and the collected writers of the Bible, Agatha Christie is the most-read author in history. Christie is universally acclaimed both for her pioneering work as a mystery writer and for her groundbreaking accomplishments as a woman writing in what was very much a male-dominated field.

Nearly 48 years after her death, Christie-the-individual remains as fascinating a subject as her dozens of published novels, short stories and plays. One episode that has long intrigued her worldwide following is her disappearance. For 11 days in 1926, Christie's whereabouts were unknown. Though she resurfaced, no satisfactory explanation would follow. Even her 1965 autobiography makes no mention of the disappearance.

The episode has inspired many who would follow in Christie's path. Several books and films have used the real-life mystery as a backdrop or foundation for new works of fiction. The latest of these is a stage play, Mrs. Christie. The work by playwright Heidi Armbruster uses the gap in Christie's personal timeline as a vehicle to explore themes of female empowerment, all while entertaining and telling a compelling story.

While the details of Christie's vanishing act aren't known, it's been established that she sought solace at the home of her best friend. Director and TheatreWorks artistic director Giovanna Sardelli says that important detail ties into this play's central theme. "In times of emotional crisis, women know how to help each other get through those moments," she says. "It is our gift. And this play [treats] that gift as a profound responsibility as well."

Mrs. Christie has one foot in present-day, another in the mid 1920s. Deftly shifting back and forth, the story focuses upon two main characters. One is bartender Lucy, a Christie aficionado who's attending a convention at the author's homestead; the other is Christie herself. "We meet both of our heroines at a moment of crisis in their lives," says Sardelli. And then a mystery unfolds.

"Time is almost a character in the play," says Jennifer Le Blanc, who portrays the revered author. "One of the many joys of [Armbruster's] text is that it plays with the murder mystery style," she says. "It's part biography, part imagined biography." Le Blanc was drawn to Mrs. Christie by that clever script. "Like Agatha Christie, Heidi gives you the clues exactly when you need them," she says. "And not before."

Mrs. Christie debuted in Vermont at the 2019 Dorset Theatre Festival; as with that production, Armbruster has been closely involved in TheatreWorks rehearsals in San Jose. "One of the joys of this play is that we've got the playwright in the room," says Le Blanc. "Heidi is there, making improvements on the text as we go along. And she lets us know about hidden 'Easter eggs,' references to Agatha Christie's work."

"Heidi's play has so much wit and humor," Sardelli enthuses. "It's... cheeky. But it also has depth, because it's about very real things: How we overcome grief, loss, pain and confusion, and how we persevere in the face of tragedy."

Sardelli finds inspiration in the work of Agatha Christie. "She's responsible for creating Miss Marple, one of the most beloved female amateur detectives in the world," the TheatreWorks director says. And she's equally inspired by the focus and determination of the real-life Christie, who launched her literary career just a few years after a world war and a global pandemic. "And she had the personal grief of her mother's death and of her marriage ending," Sardelli adds.

The director is confident that Mrs. Christie will "provide a satisfying order to chaos in a thoroughly entertaining way." That would be very much in keeping with the literary works of Agatha Christie herself.

The San Jose performances are the latest in what Sardelli hopes are many more stagings around the country and beyond. "The play has everything that I love about theater," she says. "It's actor-driven, it's story-based, and it has incredible female protagonists." And she believes that now is the right time for a play with the qualities that Mrs. Christie displays. "It's a smart and fun homage to the murder mystery genre, but it also provides something that people can relate to amid all of the chaos of the world right now: a solution."

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