Death in paradise: Reno Little Theater’s ‘While the Lights Were Out’

Murder mysteries are really having a moment. It seems every week in January, a new, highly anticipated, streaming whodunnit series was released, and the true crime podcast Crime Junkie was the top podcast of 2023. Perhaps that’s why Reno Little Theater turned to Jack Sharkey’s 1988 play While the Lights Were Out, a farcical, British-style parlor mystery, for its midwinter schedule.

For lovers of a good old-fashioned Agatha Christie-like, country-house whodunit, Sharkey’s play has all the fixins: a locked-room murder, a huge cast of suspects, ominous weather and a remote location. But it’s also a farce, with all the outlandish components that come with that, including over-the-top physical comedy and archetypical characters placed in absurd situations.

In a nutshell (no mean feat, I assure you), Lord Clive and Lady Monica Wickenham are hosting a dinner party at their sprawling estate on a cliffside in Bermuda. In the opening scene, we discover that Clive (played by Jim Winkler) has some peculiar tendencies, including extreme penny-pinching, frequent temper tantrums, a fondness for martial arts and a fascination with palindromes. His wife, Monica (Holly Lorge), barely tolerates these traits, preferring instead to host lively parties and enjoy the luxuries his medical career affords them. Their tennis-playing son, Algernon (Christopher Ross), is newly engaged, so the Wickenhams are hosting a dinner party to celebrate, and the service staff—butler Remley (Michael Davanzo), maid Nancy (Judy Davis Rounds) and cook Mimosa (Karly Tilman) are tasked with welcoming their guests and preparing a delicious feast, despite the oncoming storm and lack of potable water.

Their invited guests include Algernon’s fiancée, fashion designer Bibi Cavendish (Tara Rispin); Jasmine Perdoo (Darcy Lenardson), an Alabama socialite they met on a cruise; Frenchman Pierre Pourri (Bryce Keil); and aristocrats Fredonia Custardine (Robin Soli) and her daughter, Chloe (Elise Van Dyne). The uninvited guests are the bumbling Detective Inspector Benjamin Braddock (Ian Sorensen) and his sharp deputy, Alma Threedle (Claire Hachenberger). Though they insist they were summoned there by a mysterious note from an anonymous source, their presence puts the entire party on edge, dampening the festivities.

As the chaos of the storm outside grows, so does the tension inside the house. The Wickenhams and their staff bicker, the guests give the side-eye to each other, the staff resent the lack of provisions needed to perform their duties … and then the lights go out. There’s a gunshot, a scream and a mysterious exclamation, and when the lights return seconds later, one of the characters is pronounced dead by unexpected means. Thus ends the first act.

Acts 2 and 3 involved plenty of finger-pointing, secret alliances, mystery guests, even more crimes and, yes, utter silliness. The intriguing nature of the crime and nonstop comedy make for a fun rollercoaster ride.

In fact, the show has everything but the kitchen sink … which is sort of a problem. Despite the strong work of director Libby Bakke, her cast of 15 and the creativity of the production crew, Sharkey’s overly long, convoluted script needs a heavy edit.

What I love about When the Lights Were Out is its playful satire of the mystery genre, with its impossible-to-follow plot twists and savant detectives. But less is more, and unfortunately Sharkey just went with more. Far too many interactions go nowhere, too many lines are throwaways, a few characters’ mere presence is a mystery and the how-they-dunnit reveal portion is just way too long. I should be clear, however, that I caught a preview performance prior to opening night; I expect the show to tighten during its actual run. Still, plan for at least two and a half hours of chaos.

Not that there isn’t plenty to enjoy. Sorensen’s physical comedy talents shine brightly here. Hachenberger is capable and even funny as his “straight man,” and Winkler made Lord Clive’s bizarre habits a great source of laughter. The sound and lighting design are worth noting here too; they contribute heavily toward keeping the story moving, despite its many convolutions.

When the Lights Were Out will be onstage at Reno Little Theater, 147 E. Pueblo St., Reno, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19-20 and 25-27, and Feb. 1-3 and 8-10. Matinees are schedule for 2 p.m. Jan. 21 and 28, and Feb. 4. Backstage Tours, $5, will be available after the Sunday shows on Jan. 21 and Feb. 4. Tickets, $15-28, are available here.