There’s a kind of purity to “Ravenscroft,” a mystery that is currently playing at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township. The entire play — written by Don Nigro in 1991, and made into the movie “The Manor” in 1999 — is an interrogation, with the dogged Inspector Ruffing (played here by Clark Carmichael) trying to figure out how a young man came to fall down a flight of steps and die. Was it murder? Or merely an accident?
Ruffing asks his questions, and the house’s five residents, who all happen to be female, give answers. And that’s it: Questions and answers, until the matter is resolved.
It’s a smart and funny play, with the truth staying frustratingly elusive for Ruffing. He gets glimpses of it from time to time. But they’re just glimpses, and he struggles to sort the facts out from the lies and red herrings and false confessions — let’s just call them alternative facts — that his colorful suspects offer, for reasons that are also, eventually, revealed.
Nigro strikes a good balance, coming up with a story that’s convoluted enough to keep viewers interested but not too convoluted for them to follow, and Carmichael does a good job at making Ruffing’s exasperation palpable.
The year is 1905, and the setting is a large house in rural England. When we’re first introduced to the suspects, their heads are in picture frames, as if they’re archetypal suspects in a game of Clue.
There’s the young widow whose house this is, Mrs. Ravenscroft (Molly Garner); her ditzy, delusional daughter, Gillian (Erin Farrah); Gillian’s beautiful Austrian governess, Marcy (Katrina Klein), who is the primary suspect, and acts, from the start, like she has something to hide; the matronly housekeeper, Mrs. French (Gloria Lamoureux); and the somewhat dim-witted maid, Dolly (Jessica Sroczynski). Farrah is particularly good at making her character — who could seem ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actress — seem believable.
Everyone stays onstage throughout the evening, sitting and watching, in the shadows, when Ruffing isn’t interrogating them directly. This adds to the sense they’re all tangled up in the same complicated web.
An interrogation, in this kind of play, is like a dance, and director Eric Hafen — who has called the play a “thinking man’s thriller” — and his cast find the right rhythm to keep the audience involved until the surprising, satisfying ending. At times, the suspects turn the tables and interrogate Ruffing — peppering him with questions and generally getting under his skin — or flirt with him, for reasons that may or may not be purely romantic.
Ruffing struggles to maintain control, especially when he accepts the offer of some alcohol and gets a little drunk. But he eventually rights himself, as you know he will.
While “Ravenscroft” is a traditional mystery in many ways, Ruffing is not an eccentric genius, like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, capable of seeing what no one else can see. He’s a modern, working man’s detective: It almost seems like he solves the mystery through sheer force of will, trudging through the lies until the truth is revealed.
“Ravenscroft” is at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through Feb. 12; visit morrismuseum.org.