This review was originally published in Pioneer Press Newspapers.
With Writers’ Theatre’s staging of “The Detective’s Wife,” Keith Huff returns to the scene of a crime. The territory will be somewhat familiar for those who were fortunate enough to see “A Steady Rain,” Huff’s Chicago-set blockbuster that became a Broadway star vehicle for Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman.
Like that previous hit, “The Detective’s Wife” puts his audience in the snarled and seething center of a cop’s world, evoking the grit, violence and complicated, often dubious morality of a world where murder and mayhem are as common as corruption — which is to say, quite common indeed.
It’s difficult not to compare Huff’s game-changing “A Steady Rain” with “The Detective’s Wife.” The latter doesn’t approach the levels of dramatic satisfaction of the former.
However, as one-person shows go, “The Detective’s Wife” is entertaining enough, thanks in large part to the appeal of actor Barbara Robertson. Ably directed by Gary Griffin, the veteran Chicago actor has the charisma and skill to keep the audience fairly intrigued. What she can’t overcome are the problems inherent to the script.
One such difficulty surfaces early in the play, as Huff relentlessly hammers the audience with a metaphor involving frames. Newly widowed detective’s wife Alice Conroy owns a framing shop, which she informs the audience shortly before launching into a monologue about framing the events of one’s life. In case you don’t pick up on the laborious metaphor’s verbal cues, the set features a backdrop of empty frames. The net result is feeling clubbed with the obvious: Frames are important!
Then there’s the closing twist Huff employs to end “The Detective’s Wife.” Alice, so we learn in the final moments, has been withholding a crucial piece of evidence from the audience. It’s a device that should send your mind spinning back over the monologue that preceded it, subtly changing your perspective on everything that’s occurred. But the revelation feels more manipulative than tantalizing. It doesn’t change anything that occurred before. It doesn’t spark a tantalizing shift in perspective. It simply provides an easy way out.
In between the metaphorically ponderous opening and the final disclosure, “The Detective’s Wife” spins a fairly conventional police procedural mystery. The murder that jumpstarts the plot is that of Alice’s husband, a detective who was gunned down in a seemingly random act of violence behind a seedy old movie palace known as Wonderland. At the time of his murder, the detective was working on a 20-year-old triple homicide. The case has proved fatal (or has it?) to every officer who worked it previously; Alice’s husband is the seventh officer to die while working the case.
And so Alice starts snooping around, trying to determine whether the shooting was as random as it appeared. Of course it wasn’t random at all. If it were there’d be no story. Through Alice’s eyes, Huff creates a portrait of her family and friends that depicts them as both benevolent and possibly sinister. Her grown children worry for Alice’s sanity, her late husband’s colleagues may know more than they’re letting on. But the story seems to ramble, and grows increasingly improbable the more one ponders it.
When the mystery is finally solved, there’s no sense of closure. Rather, Huff only opens the door to a lot more questions and reveals a plot that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.
The most intriguing element of the Writers’ Theatre production isn’t the story itself but rather Mike Tutaj’s projections, ethereal images of doors, bedsteads, legal documents and, yes, frames, that appear and disappear like so many ghosts. Huff also threads the narrative through with references to “Hamlet,” allusions that are intriguing to begin with but — like all those frames — start to wear thin after the fifth or sixth mention.
In the end, it’s the contrivances that keep “The Detective’s Wife” from being a murderously fine piece of theater. Lose a few of the frames, lighten up on the Shakespearean allusions and fill in the plot holes, and you’d have a first-rate thriller.
The Detective’s Wife runs through Aug. 7 at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. For more information, go to http://www.writerstheatre.org.
For more reviews of Writers’ Theatre productions, click here (Do the Hustle) here (Travels With My Aunt), here(A Streetcar Named Desire), here (The Old Settler), here (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), here(The Minister’s Wife),here (As You Like It), here (Othello), here(Old Glory), here (Bach at Leipzig), here (Nixon’s Nixon),here (The Savannah Disputation), here (The Turn of the Screw) and here (The Puppetmaster of Lodz).