Agatha Christie dishes appetizing murder mystery on Egyptian pleasure cruise
Sunset Playhouse production keeps audience guessing throughout

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

January 30, 2014

WAUKESHA - I’m not a big mystery novel reader, but when I have a chance to see one of Agatha Christie’s works translated into a stage play, I am always eager to experience the grand dame of mysteries, though I can seldom figure out who the guilty party is.  Listening to people’s comments during the two intermissions of the Sunset Playhouse’s “Murder on the Nile,” I realized that I wasn’t the only one.  

Based on Christie’s 1937 novel “Death on the Nile,” the story takes place on a cruise ship meandering down the Nile River in Egypt. The exotic setting, complete with bothersome beadsellers hawking their wares as the vacationers dock, lends a certain mysterious flavor in itself. Whenever there is a culture clash and an attitude of xenophobia, there are bound to be judgments and misunderstandings. We also sense a superior attitude on the part of some of the characters and insinuations of some prejudice between economic and ethnic classes.  

The entourage of travelers includes a snobby British aunt and her lowly niece, Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes and Christina Grant; Kay and Simon Mostyn, a pair of affluent newlyweds; Dr. Bessner, a German doctor; Canon Pennefather, a minister who happens to be the guardian of Kay Mostyn; Jacqueline de Severac, an ex-fiancee of Simon who is stalking the Mostyns; Smith, a cynical sociologist; and Louise, a French maid-servant of Kay Mostyn. This is an interesting collection of characters, to be sure, all of whom have some hidden agendas.  

As the cruise proceeds, we get to know each character more fully.  Pennefather is a holy beggar, interested in pursuing souls but more so his own pet projects, mostly by fundraising; Dr. Bessner is angry about the machinations of Kay Mostyn’s business magnate father, who reduced his city to poverty; Smith doesn’t believe in much beyond his own cynical observations of the human race, although he does experience a change of heart; Kay and Simon, who have their own tensions over money and the rather seedy way in which their relationship began, and Jackie, who is one very vengeful has-been. So tension lurks beneath the pleasant surface of cruising down a beautiful river.  

After the cast of characters is reduced by two, we are left to figure out who did the dirty deed and why. This is the challenge for most of the characters and all of us, and the shrewd Pennefather takes it upon himself to play detective until the police arrive, and an astute investigator he is.  

The cast is strong, the pacing keeps us totally engaged and the ending is surprising. The best performances are rendered by Julia Snider as Jacqueline, and Michael Chobanoff as Pennefather. Other strong members of the cast include Doug Smedbron as Dr. Bessner, Ruth Arnell as Kay, and Matthew J. Patten as Smith.  

The set design by Dana Fralick, costumes by Sharon Sohner and skillful direction by the versatile Carol Dolphin united to offer us a quality production.