Agatha Christie's 1939 suspense-mystery novel, "Ten Little Indians," is like a classic car. It may be old, a bit rusty, musty and slow, but it will eventually get you where you want to go. Although a stage version at Castaways Repertory Theatre in Woodbridge takes considerable time getting out of second gear, your mind will shift into overdrive somewhere along the way as you get drawn into the plot and try to figure out whodunit. Or, more accurately, who is still doing it.
The conventions of this story, which also is known by its alternative title, "And Then There Were None," have been imitated numerous times on stage, film and television. But this is the real thing, vintage Dame Agatha. Ten strangers are invited to an isolated island mansion off the coast of England by a mysterious host. Almost immediately, the guests start dying -- murdered, it seems, by the unseen master of the house. As their little band shrinks, the trapped guests begin to suspect each other, leading to a bang-up climax.
The Castaways troupe is presenting the version that Christie adapted for the stage in 1943. Their production hits the high points well, even if the ensemble cast spans an uneven range of talent. Director Larry Alan Baird does his best to keep things moving, and he's not always successful during some very long stretches where little happens other than exposition. Dame Agatha takes an hour to introduce the cast, set up the mystery and kill off the first victim. That little bit of unpleasantness prompts the nine remaining characters to reintroduce themselves, this time telling their real stories. By then it's time for the first of two intermissions, with 90 percent of the expected murders still to wade through.
Sara Joy Lebowitz dominates the show as feisty Vera, an appealing young lady who has a skeleton in her closet, like everyone else. Lebowitz's high-energy performance stands out in a cast that mostly underplays the roles. For most, keeping it simple and low-key is probably a wise directorial choice as several cast members have difficulty with British accents.
Another standout performance comes from Castaways veteran Gary Crawford in a secondary lead role as shifty detective William Blore, a gumshoe who lacks the brains and character to solve much of anything. Crawford's work here is high-energy, and he has developed a fully realized take on the role that makes it fun to watch. He combines realistic fear, exasperation and confusion along with comedy-tinged reactions.
Accents remain a continuing problem for community theater directors who usually fail to grasp how detrimental it is to the entire effort to allow actors to struggle with them. That distorts entire performances, as general physicality becomes contorted along with tongues, and actors fail to develop their characters while they expend their energies struggling to reproduce anything sounding remotely British.
Skilled actors such as Lebowitz and Crawford use class and regional accents befitting their characters, enhancing their work. Others ruin what might otherwise be competent work, most noticeably the unfortunate actor playing Dr. Armstrong. He struts about the stage spouting whole paragraphs in which nary a word can be understood. Several actors here did eschew the accents, and they are to be congratulated for making a choice that benefited the production.
The setting for the spooky holiday of homicide is an English country house, agreeably designed by Thomas Hannon. Despite being a bit shaky, it has the feel of a truly dimensional space and is nicely detailed. On the minus side is a lack of pizzazz with period costumes and several action scenes that remained far too tentative even in the show's mid-run stage.
"Ten Little Indians" concludes this weekend, performed by Castaways Repertory Theatre at Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Building, 15941 Donald Curtis Drive, Woodbridge. Performances on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. For information or tickets, call 703-508-5418 or visit www.castawaystheatre.org.