Oakmont church dinner-theater mystery returns for benefit performances

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

It's been many years since a passenger train has pulled into the station in Oakmont.

A mystery train, though, will roll down the tracks of the imagination this week in the borough as the centerpiece of the long-running, midwinter entertainment engineered by the cast members of the Oakmont United Methodist Church's annual dinner theaters.

“A Treacherous Night in a Midnight Train” provides this year's intrigue Friday through Sunday.

“In the middle of winter, when people are usually tired of the cold, darkness and snow and looking for something fun, we offer a day and evening out with lots of fun, laughter and good food,” director Donna Jacka says.

Loyal cast and audience members have returned every year for the experience, she says.

“Some people call for tickets before Christmas,” says show veteran John Jacobs, who portrays a detective, disguised as a porter, looking for a jewel thief on board a train in 1939-'40 Germany.

His wife, real-life church secretary Karen Jacobs, works behind the scenes to coordinate the 25 volunteers necessary to staff the kitchen, dining room and ticket takers and perform other duties.

“Last year, after our 18th production, we passed the over-$50,000 mark of what we have donated to various missions over the years,” she says. “Our profits are high because our United Methodist Women, who prepare the meals, also donate the cost of the food. When your heart is in something, you just want to do more and more.”

Among other local and global missions, this production will provide funding for No More Malaria, purchasing protective nets in Africa; Bethany House, the local agency working with children and families at St. Claire Village and North View Heights; and Twin Boro Health Ministries, an ecumenical health ministry serving residents of Oakmont, Verona and Penn Hills.

“The best part of having a good time performing is that the profit goes to help a variety of people,” the Rev. Linda Chamber, pastor, says.

She says she likes the element of surprise in these productions; this is her third. “It's for anyone who enjoys a light mystery to solve.”

Chambers portrays a countess, concerned with taking her valuables to France and safety — away from possible confiscation. “She has an unexpected skill,” Chambers says, teasingly.

The entire production is set on a railroad car. Some of the passengers have a lot on their minds.

In addition to the countess, a scientist is trying to get a prototype of his invention out of Germany, with the Gestapo attempting to stop him.

Undercover detectives are on the heels of a thief.

And, miscellaneous characters float about, some with an important part in the plot and some there to create confusion.

The goal, says Bill Kennedy, who is making his acting debut, is to “keep the audience wondering.” He is putting on “a farm-boy disposition” for his role as an Iowan, a young American Marine corporal, stationed in a German embassy, and AWOL for the weekend as he escorts his fiancée to Paris.

David Fichte is channeling his inner “Sgt. Schultz” of “Hogan's Heroes” sitcom fame for his character of Karl Von Handsome. “He is very impressed with himself and unaware that others might not be.”

That makes for good interaction with the other characters, he says.

“This is a good mystery with twists and red herrings, silly-slapstick humor and a cast who is having as much fun as the audience is,” Fichte says.

Jacka calls them a “group of dedicated people who are willing to try new things and add their own twist to the parts.”

Heather Fichte, who has done 14 of the shows with her husband, David, remains impressed at how it all comes together every year.

Fichte says she enjoys being silly and making fictitious people come alive.

This year, she is Annette Amour, a very fashionable, selfish, beautiful, demanding woman who is returning to Paris to be with her family.

Lori Huha admits, “since I am nowhere close to being Italian” her attempts to develop an Italian accent for her role are a work in progress. She plays Rosa Sauciano, traveling with her sister Maria on that cultural trip to France.

She is enjoying the train setting for the play.

Jessica Jacka likes the surprises found in live theater. “You can't control what is going to happen, and you just have to go with whatever does,” she says.

“It's an event in which an audience member really has to pay attention and participate in figuring out the mystery.” Prizes are awarded for those who solve the mystery first.

Following subtle clues throughout the show can lead to identifying the murderer, cast member Christine Smith says. “So the audience has to pay close attention to the dialogue, as well as the humor to solve the crime. Even the cast doesn't know whodunit.”

The audience can gain more knowledge by purchasing 25-cent clues from the characters during dessert.

“Mysteries seem to bring out the competitive nature in people. It is like watching a live puzzle,” Smith says.

She likes to think of this year's show as “Hogan's Heroes Meets the Orient Express.”

Jim Anderson does not argue with that description. He is fashioning his character of Col. Klunk after Gestapo Maj. Wolfgang Hochstetter of “Hogan's Heroes.”

Anderson says as people come to “solve this puzzle of the mind ... they will leave with the knowledge that not only were they thoroughly entertained, but they had a great meal and helped others within the community.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com

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