WILLIAMSTOWN -- A wedding band missing from the body of a wealthy estate owner may seem like a trivial matter, but to Sherlock Holmes, it's a key piece of evidence that will help unravel the mystery behind the murder at the center of the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Free Theatre's "The Valley of Fear."
The play, a new adaptation by playwright Steven Lawson of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's final Sherlock Holmes novel, begins tonight at 7 p.m. and runs through Friday.
The story unfolds with Holmes (Michael Bradley Conan) and his faithful companion, Dr. John Watson (Chris Bannow), receiving a coded letter from one of Professor Moriarty's henchmen, detailing impending danger for the owner of a wealthy country estate. Unfor tunately, the note has arrived too late, and the pair travel to the country with Inspector MacDonald (Harry Ford) to solve the murder of John Douglas (Alexander Seife).
Upon arriving, the detectives find not only the body of Mr. Douglas but a series of clues including a bloody footprint, a missing ring, a single barbell and a bicycle. Undoubtedly, Holmes reveals the true identity of the murderer.
But the story doesn't end there. The second act flashes back 12 years to the Pennsylvania coal country, where a young Mr. Douglas is known as Jack McMurdo. It's here that we learn of his involvement with "The Scowlers," a murderous arm of a coal miner's union and the reasons behind the "hit" put out on him by the
Director Lila Neugebauer has assembled a delightful cast made up of the festival's non-equity actors and apprentices, many of whom perform multiple roles.
However, Lawson's adaptation suffers in the second act -- a fault that comes from his faithfulness to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's own narrative devices. Doyle's novels all employed the use of a flashback to reveal the motives behind the crime at hand, which in this particular case make the play much too long. Younger audiences may follow the story of the second act, but have a hard time connecting the characters with those in the prior.
Cohen presents Holmes not as the stiff Brit as many actors before him, but in a fashion closer to Doyle's canon -- he pounces, he twists, he turns, he leaps on chairs and rushes through rooms as he's hot on the trail. He's paired wonderfully with Barrow's Watson. There's a chemistry between the two men, which leads you to believe they've been old friends for a long time as they banter back and forth. Their absence from the second act makes it rather droll and heavy.
Another bright spot of the production is Ford, who plays not only the bumbling Scotland Yard inspector, but also Bodymaster McGinty. His parts couldn't be more different -- one a jovial Scottish detective, the other a brooding, dark tyrant. He performs magnificently in both.
To Lawson's credit, the first act of the play is a marvel to watch as actors leap and run through the audience and on-stage. There's a slow-motion fight as the murder is recounted and plenty of action to keep one entertained throughout.
But while Lawson tries to pep up the second act up with a stomping, singing mob of union members -- which seems more "Gangs of New York" than anything else -- the problem is the text itself. He's stripped away a lot of Doyle's heavy plot here, but it's not enough and still makes for a long second half of "The Valley of Fear."
That said, "The Valley of Fear" is worth a look.
What: ‘The Valley of Fear'
When: 7 p.m., today through Friday
Where: Poker Flats Field, 45 Stetson Road, Williams College in Williamstown
Running time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission
What to bring: Picnic items, chairs and blankets, a jacket, bug spray
Tickets: Admission is free. Parking and restrooms on-site.
More information: www.wtfestival.org/freetheatre