A wife caught in limbo between reality and the imaginative, sinister manifestations of the mind. A Chicago homocide detective brutally murdered while solving a multi-decades long case. A home brimming sordidly with investigation notes and haunted by ghosts. So is the context of Keith Huff’s The Detective’s Wife, which world premiered at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe last Wednesday. Starring the flawless Barbara Robertson as the tragic woman left alone to solve the frightful mystery of her dead husband, The Detective’s Wife is a one-character drama that is the second in line of a loose trilogy of Chicago cop plays written by Huff.
Barbara Robertson, playing Alice Conroy, the wife of recently murdered detective James Conroy and mother of two grown children, has clearly reached the verge of lunacy. She shares her story openly and explicitly with the audience, almost as if we, the audience, are the first witnesses to the fraught trajectory she goes through in discovering her dead husband and uncovering the truth. Her story is clearly a murder mystery, infused, however, with love encounters and personal anectodes relatable to any ordinary woman who has recently become widowed. This dual and simultaneous patterned life memoir, deftly written by Huff, makes the story humane and real, though also prevents it from being a straight hair-rising murder mystery. What I personally found most captivating was the mystery-laden parts, which much to my pleasure, gradually overtook the story the further into the play we got. As a result, I found the second act more engaging than the first act.
As the youngest member of the audience (mind you---The Writer’s Theatre-Vernon Avenue location is an incredibly intimate space of about 50 seats, and thus I could get a pretty close look at each visitor present), I found I could not understand some of the cultural references. Allusions to Murder, She Wrote, Donna Reed, Columbo. the TV series, among others, were all well-received by audience members, though for me, it was less relatable. Aside from these brief mentions, I felt the play could appeal well to audiences of all ages.
The actual truth of the mystery was a bit confusing, likely because the story was truncated into under 120 minutes, and because those 120 minutes were not solely devoted to uncovering that mystery. After the show, it took me some time and discussion with my friend to clarify what actually transpired between Alice’s then boyfriend, Tom, and his brother, Patt, two significant characters in the story that I will spare you the details on so as not to divulge too much information!
Much to the credit of director, Garry Griffin and actress Barbara Robertson, the story was conveyed incredibly well and thoroughly, even without any other character’s on stage to create the story and propel the hair-rising mystery forward. The stage design and screen projections added to the intrigue. Provacative images of bloodied corpses projected onto the back wall, helping audience members and Alice, herself, better visualize the string of seven homocides around which this mystery revolves, allowing these images to pierce the heart a bit more and let the nerves awaken. The mystery books that fill the home from floor to ceiling are fitting and creative, both for the plot and the space. Alice has found in these novels a semi-escape from from the dark reality and looming questions that taunt her, though the escape is just close enough to keep her intrigued and propelled forward to solve her mystery. Adding creativity to this--- The Writer’s Theatre is actually attached to a bookstore, so walking into the bookstore and then into the theater almost felt like one and the same, blurring the line between reality and the imaginative world of the play.
Rather surpisingly, Robertson is incredibly unemotional and stoic throughout her retelling, aside from a few brief moments. It is apparent that her intrigue and excitement over what has transpired has trumped her inner distress and sorrow, a sure sign of her lunacy and being out of touch with reality. It appears that her excitement and energy stem from the fact that she has not yet emotionally processed and distanced herself from what has transpired. As she tells the story, she is caught in the thick of it, either actually participating in the story herself, or as an outsider looking in through a picture frame . Throughout much of the play, and particularly the second act, Alice is indeed what she calls herself: “buoyant----safely afloat.” She is passively engaged in the reality of her situation---confused but not overly agitated, at times even amused by her situation. She is incredibly animated and even funny some of the time, in a weird-sort-of-way. Though she speaks verbally to the audience to convey her story, within her own narrative she only communicates by way of writing---she lacks the capacity to connect her voice to her soul, as a result of her husband’s tragic homicide. It is precisely Alice Conroy’s quirkiness---her inability to verbally communicate, her incredible animation and energy, and lack of extreme emotion, that separates her from most characters we may encounter in a typical murder-mystery novel. Writer, director, and actor all seemed to collaborate well in finding and exploring the peculiarities and uniqueness of character Conroy.
If you are a fan of TV’s Mad Men (Keith Huff wrote that popular show as well), murder mystery genres and superb acting, then I would most encourage you to come visit Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe and experience Huff’s work for yourself.
The Detective’s Wife by Keith Huff. Directed by Gary Griffin, featuring Barbara Robertson.
May 24 - July 31, 2011, Writers’ Theatre, 664 Vernon Avenue in Glencoe (847) 242-6000,
PHOTO CREDIT: Liz Lauren