“It all began with Sunset Towers…” is how Prince William Little Theatre opened its production of The Westing Game to an enthusiastic and energetic audience this weekend at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. The Westing Game is Darian Lindle’s play adaptation of Ellen Raskin’s mystery novel first published in 1978. The novel has received multiple awards including the Newbery Medal and had a film adaptation in the 1997 Get a Clue. The play was first produced in 2009 by Prime Stage Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has since become a popular play for community, educational, and family theaters.
The story revolves around the mysterious death of eccentric millionaire Samuel W. Westing. Sixteen seemingly unrelated individuals are summoned to live in his mansion and participate in a bizarre game to determine the sole heir to his vast fortune. Each individual is given a set of clues and a partner to solve the puzzle of Westing’s death and the identity of the heir. The story follows the various characters as they work together, uncover secrets, and attempt to decipher the clues while dealing with their own unique personalities and motives.
In this quirky cast of characters, we meet Sandy McSouthers (Bob Thompson), the doorman at Sunset Towers. Thompson brings warmth and silliness to Sandy, eliciting many laughs from the opening night audience. Thompson also doubles as Barney Northrup, embodying an unkind and business-focused bully. We are then introduced to the adults: the reserved yet proud Judge J.J. Ford (Ebony Lofton), the hopeful James Shin Hoo (Charlie Kim), the not-so-bright Otis Amber (Jim Harris), the mysterious Berthe Erica Crow (Sandra M. DeRocha), the kind and loving Flora Baumbach (Jenna Reeder), a corporate secretary in Sydelle Pulaski (Tashina Gorgone), the snobby, self-proclaimed heiress Grace Windsor Wexler (Lexy Janda Knott), the beautiful bride-to-be Angela Wexler (Holly Landis), and the self-important, groom-to-be D. Denton Deere (Liam Haberman). Each actor’s character development was evident through these clearly delineated identities.
One of the greatest strengths of Prince William Theatre is offering community theater performance opportunities to talented youth and fostering their abilities onstage. Avery Heisey, as the precocious Tabitha-Ruth “Turtle” Wexler, opens the show and sets the stage for an evening of mystery. Heisey brought the character to life by embodying the essence of Turtle’s complex personality. One of the standout aspects of Heisey’s performance was her ability to convey Turtle’s intelligence, resourcefulness, vulnerability, and growth. Heisey’s ensemble performance was also highlighted by interactions with fellow performer Rachel Scott (Doug Hoo). Scott’s onstage chemistry with Heisey and the ensemble was evident through nuanced stage business and engagement in every scene. She made Doug’s discomfort in social situations palpable through excellent comedic timing and mannerisms of a high school athlete.
Noah Nicoletti’s portrayal of Chris Theodorakis, a character with a physical disability and speech impediment, was marked by his commitment to authenticity and respect. Nicoletti demonstrated sensitivity and empathy in his portrayal by avoiding stereotypes and focused on conveying the character’s humanity. In doing so, Nicoletti created a beloved character that reminds audiences that theater can both teach and entertain. Hadyn Dollery, as Theo Theodorakis, plays the caring, protective older brother of Chris. He showed Theo’s transition from a reserved teenager to a young adult who gains confidence and takes on a leadership role towards the end of the mystery.
Proving that no role is too small to make a lasting impact is actor Taveion Mikens (Edward Plum/Dr. Sikes), whose show-stopping humor makes one wonder how the cast was able to hold their focus onstage. Mikens plays the young, inexperienced lawyer Edward Plum assigned to read the Westing wil and doubles as Dr. Sikes. This reviewer would gladly pay to see this actor in a one-man show.
The intimate space of Hylton’s Gregory Theatre gives the audience the unique opportunity to be only a few feet away from the performers. This intimacy fosters a strong connection between performer and audience, enhancing the overall theatrical experience by allowing audience members to feel immersed in The Westing Game. Walking into the open seated space, the audience is met with colorful flats representing the six apartments of the heirs and a set of double french doors centerstage. Set designer Nick Mastrangelo meets the challenge of multiple settings by creating flats that later become the Westing mansion, the apartment lobby, and a hospital room. Going from the Sunset Towers to the Westing Mansion was the most impressive transition, eliminating the french doors to reveal another room with a fireplace and rotating all the apartment set pieces. Set changes were occasionally slowed due to the limited number of run crew available to Prince William Little Theatre, but no set change delayed the start of another scene. All hands were on deck for the challenging set transitions (including cast) and stage manager Darcy Heisey’s meticulous deck organization made transitions move as smoothly as possible.
Prince William Little Theatre wisely took the script’s suggestion to utilize projections to assist with understanding the settings. Created by Jon Roberts, the projections of character profiles helped audience members keep track of the storyline and the pairs’ conversations. The projection of the multiple clues and of the details of Samuel Westing’s will helped the modern subtitle-desiring audience be part of the mystery-solving process as both a viewer and as a participant. Audience members occasionally read clues quietly to themselves and consulted other attendees, forming opinions as to what the clues meant.
Director Ward Kay expertly cast this production with the correct focus on accurate portrayal of ages and cultures to create a production that authentically reflects the story while promoting diversity. This multigenerational and diverse cast reflects the real world, and Kay’s insistence on this representation is essential for fostering inclusivity and providing opportunity to all. In collaboration with assistant director Whitney Perez, Kay creates a more vibrant and meaningful landscape. The lighting design was by Kurt Gustafson, light board operation by Addisyn Heisey, props/setting dressing by Mary Gaskins, costume design by Jill Jago, and sound by the Hylton Performing Arts Center
With echoes of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, Clue, and Knives Out, the audience is presented with character revelations and unexpected twists, making it a captivating and engaging storyline. The Westing Game is not only a suspenseful mystery but also a story about the human spirit, relationships, and the pursuit of the American Dream. If you enjoy a good puzzle, be sure to catch this entertaining mystery before tickets run out!
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
The Westing Game plays through October 6-15, presented by Prince William Little Theatre performing at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, VA. Purchase tickets ($15–$25) online.