Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's 'Detective's Wife' rivets with suspense

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Mary MacDonald Kerr as Alice Conroy in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s “The Detective’s Wife.” –Photo: Mark Frohna

Veteran Milwaukee stage actor Mary MacDonald Kerr fills the intimate Studio Theatre with suspense in the one-woman show “The Detective’s Wife.”

The play, by Chicago playwright Keith Huff, is a humdinger of a mystery. At intermission, audiences might think they’ve got the ending figured out. But when the lights finally fade to black, they’ll discover that more questions have been raised than answered.

Skillfully guided by director Jim Tasse, Kerr rivets the audience as Alice Conroy, wife of a Chicago police detective. She opens with a tantalizing line: “When my husband died on duty, I lost my voice.” She means this literally. Many of her communications are sent as messages written on a notepad (more on this later).

Kerr addresses the audience directly throughout the play. In an hour and 45 minutes – which seem to fly by – she takes us through the grisly details of her husband’s murder and its aftermath. She speaks unflinchingly, as one might expect from a woman who was a police officer’s wife for more than 20 years. Now a widow at age 52, Alice decides to solve the case of her husband’s death.

In a mystery, of course, one encounters all manner of twists and turns. In this regard, “Detective’s Wife” doesn’t disappoint. Alice is convinced that her husband, post-mortem, is encouraging her to solve the riddle. Raising tantalizing parallels to “Hamlet,” she claims that he’s visited her as a ghost.

Undaunted by the seeming indifference of her husband’s police force, Alice tries various paths to discover the truth. With every dead end, she tenaciously redoubles her efforts.

Eventually, she regains her voice.

Kerr is adept at impersonating the various people in Alice’s life, such as her husband’s former partner, her adult children and her therapist. She transforms into these other roles so effortlessly that her bond with the audience remains unbroken.

The entire play is set in Alice’s living room, and Kerr wears only one outfit throughout the performance – an outfit as relaxed as her acting style. A set of large, flat screens at the back of the set appear as windows for most of the play.

As Kerr struggles to regain use of her vocal chords, she communicates by writing short messages on a notepad. When she slides the notepaper across the desk, the image is projected on the screens. It’s an engaging device that’s used later in the play to project images of her husband’s death scene. The enlarged photos are detailed enough to give the audience – as well as Alice – clues about the detective’s death.

“The Detective’s Wife” should delight longtime Mary MacDonald Kerr fans as well as mystery lovers and those who appreciate a good tale. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre can count “Detective’s Wife” among this season’s artistic successes.

On stage

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents “The Detective’s Wife” through Oct. 13 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For more, phone 414-291-7800 or go to milwaukeechambertheatre.com.