Playwright Keith Huff, who spent years in the Chicago storefront trenches before achieving recording-breaking Broadway success with the Daniel Craig-Hugh Jackman starrer “A Steady Rain,” is awfully smart to return to an intimate space in his hometown for his next play, “The Detective’s Wife.” Here in familiar territory, his one-person take on murder mysteries (with ghost stories and Shakespearean tragedy thrown in for good measure) gets a production of the finest quality — thanks to director Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”), striking design work, and the diminutive but dynamite actress Barbara Robertson — that remains in tune with the modest, playful complexity of the genre piece.
While it’s part of a planned trilogy of plays set within the world of Chicago law enforcement, and it shares the retrospective monologue structure of the police procedural “Steady Rain,” “The Detective’s Wife” is far more stylized than its realistic predecessor and possesses a completely different, far lighter tone.
Robertson plays Alice Conroy, 52-year-old wife of a Chicago police detective who has been killed while investigating a decades-old triple murder. As a mystery buff extraordinaire — even, it’s suggested, an addict — Alice can’t help trying to solve the puzzle of what happened, particularly since every detective who ever looked into the original crime has met a similar fate.
Huff finds a fitful balance between being smart and being too unsubtle, even pretentious. Alice opens with a riff on “framing” the truth and then tells us that she owns a frame shop. She asks at one point whether we seek escape in solvable mystery stories to enhance our own sense of security and to combat the uncertainties of existence itself.
She frequently refers to “Hamlet” — in which she is part Gertrude, the widow, and part Hamlet, who sees the ghost of the deceased. But just when you chalk up the slight pretension of these references to pretty effective foreshadowing, Huff tips overboard by adding in a Captain Fortinbras.
While the mystery itself is mostly under-baked and Huff misses opportunities to create a more layered character study even when he throws in an effectively hidden psychological twist, he has to be given credit for crafting a full-length one-person play that manages to be constantly entertaining.
It’s a terrific thing that Huff has such a simpatico team of collaborators here, unafraid of the unsubtle, but in the very best sense. Kevin Depinet’s striking set has an entire wall of mystery books plus more piles of them literally hanging from the ceiling, creating the sense that Alice lives in a mental universe where mysteries are both unavoidable and dangerous. And Mike Tutaj’s essential projections have a impressively realistic dimensionality to them.
And then there’s Robertson, who in this intimate space grasps the audience by the scruff of our necks and secures us firmly into the palm of her hand for the duration. She displays acting superpowers here, moving the monologue at an ever-brisk clip while blending the contemplative, serious and psychological with the comic.