It's not often that murder can make you smile. About as often, I'd guess, as a theater production can be recommended as wholeheartedly as "Ladies in Retirement," currently at Alexandria's Port City Playhouse.

"Ladies in Retirement," by Edward Percy and Reginald Denham, delivers. From plotting and tempo to character development and acting, the play provides suspense, expectation, intelligence and enjoyment -- no small achievement.

The plot isn't anything new, but it's stalwart. Someone has something someone else wants; murder follows.

Leonora Fiske (Adriana Hardy) is a retired actress who has made her fortune on the stage and by charming men. She has retired to the English countryside and has brought with her the destitute-yet-proud Ellen Creed (Kathy Fannon) as housekeeper-companion.

The household includes a young maid, Lucy Gilham (Monique Quinta). Some sisters at a nunnery down the road are the only nearby residents.

The quiet ends when Creed's off-center sisters, Louisa (Mary Agnes Connell) and Emily (Karen K. Kirschenbauer), come to visit. Ellen is fiercely responsible for this dotty pair, her only family, and wants to keep them with her, though she is powerless to do so without her employer's consent.

The sisters' antics, including their virulent anti-Catholicism, drive Leonora over the edge and she orders Ellen to send them back to the city. Suffice it to say that it is not the sisters who get sent away.

The rest of the play is spent unraveling the dirty deed. That's done by Ellen's ne'er-do-well nephew, Albert Feather (Rick Colella), a corrupt antihero. Colella displays just the right mix of smarminess and treachery in the part.

As for the rest of the cast, even the minor parts shine. Veodia Carroll's Sister Theresa is sweet and calm, and as the dizzy housekeeper who helps Albert uncover the plot, Quinta is aptly schizoid and scared. Hardy, as the unfortunate Fiske, is imperious yet kind. For their short time on stage, these three are solid.

But the real kudos go to the Creed sisters. Kirschenbauer and Connell are comic nightmares -- the tall, gaunt and sour Kirschenbauer meshing well with the short, pudgy and grinning Connell. The audience alternately laughs and groans as the two pick at and jostle each other like a deranged Lucy and Ethel.

Fannon's Ellen Creed delivers the key performance. Her rage at her hopeless circumstance is like a boiling pot of water with a too-tight lid. The tension before and after the murder is excruciating.

The sets and lighting, by Frank Pasqualino and Seth Maher, respectively, are creative and combine to create a country atmosphere, most vividly on the proverbial dark and stormy night.

The only problem with this otherwise fine production is the pace. At times the lines lag, and the scene changes are embarrassingly slow.

These are minor snags, though. This show, which runs through Saturday, will give you the willies, make you guffaw and stretch your mind. And that's major.