Playwright Heidi Armbruster considers herself "a very devoted fan" of mystery novelist Agatha Christie. So much so that eight years ago, she even traveled to Christie's hometown on the English Riviera for the International Agatha Christie Festival, held each year on the writer's birthday.
While there, Armbruster attended a lecture about a newly-discovered Christie manuscript that had been hidden in a basement in Martha's Vineyard for years. After the talk, she was speaking with the lecturer who had the actual manuscript in a satchel sitting on the table right next to him. "I was like, 'Could I just grab it and run?'" Armbruster recalls thinking during the conversation. "But then I was like, 'No, because I'm wearing espadrilles.'"
That thought though, became the jumping off point for her play Mrs. Christie. In it, an Agatha Christie superfan, Lucy, makes the pilgrimage to the author's estate where she discovers an unpublished diary that has clues to Christie's 11-day disappearance in 1926. Parallel story lines blend past and present as Lucy tries to unravel the real-life Christie mystery while uncovering a little of her own buried grief. The West Coast premiere of Mrs. Christie wraps up October 29 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
Armbruster first encountered Christie in middle school when she was assigned to read "And Then There Were None." After that, she didn't pick up the author again for a very long time. "I was like, 'Oh, she's for middle school students and old ladies.'" But then in 2012, Armbruster (who is also an actor) was appearing in a play Off-Broadway where she had two scenes with a lot of time between them. However, there was no way for her to get to the dressing room from where she exited after the first scene, so she had a little stool in the corner backstage. She'd also just gotten an e-reader and an Agatha Christie novel came pre-loaded with it, so she just read that while waiting for her second scene. "This is actually good!" She remembers thinking. "Why have I been so disparaging of this?"
Around the same time, Armbruster's mother died. "She was a redhead. She was a piano player. She died at 60, which seemed like kind of old at the time, and now seems very young," says Armbruster. "And she had freckles."
Reading Agatha Christie novels became a balm for the grieving actor. "I found the books to be accessible and plot driven. A chapter was the length of a subway ride. You could pick it up and put it down. And then there were these puzzles and chaos that were always solved. So even when you couldn't solve it yourself, you knew you were in good hands. And the chaos would be ordered. And you would close the final page and feel better," says Armbruster. "She was just a really good friend at a moment in my life when I needed that restoration."
Armbruster was 37 when her mother died. Christie's 11-day disappearance directly followed the death of her own mother in 1926. Christie was also 37. It was easy for Armbruster to imagine grief as the catalyst. "There's a dead mom lurking in the corners of everything I've ever written," she says. "In this case, it's Agatha's mother. But this is the play that I wrote to process her death. Maybe someday I'll actually write about her."
For now, though, Mrs. Christie is still guiding the playwright through her own stages of grief. "There is definitely something about that therapeutic impulse that needs some place to go. You sort of take it, and you shape it with craft and structure and language, and it moves a little further outside of you. And then you hand it over to a team of artists, and it moves even further outside of you. And then you hand it to an audience, and it moves even further," says Arrester. "There's something about the letting go of it. That's actually maybe where the real healing comes.
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