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A ‘Zoom-dunit’

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Award-winning local playwright James Nevius will debut his first-ever Zoom play, “Saint Mary Immaculate Virtual High School Reunion,” this weekend. A portion of every ticket sold will benefit ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Photos courtesy James Nevius

Former rivals. Old flames. Frenemies from the past. It’s no wonder the prospect of attending a high school reunion can fill us with curiosity, anxiety or dread. (Or all of the above.)

And what could possibly make it more nerve-wracking?

If there’s a killer on the guest list.

That’s the premise of Maui playwright James Nevius’s brand-new Zoom play, “Saint Mary Immaculate Virtual High

School Reunion,” which premieres at 4 p.m. today in a limited, three-performance run. The livestreamed comic murder mystery follows a group of old classmates who gather for their 20-year reunion on Zoom. As they reconnect and reminisce, it’s revealed a serial killer is on the loose in their hometown. And it could be one of them.

James Nevius

Who is it? Well, you’ll have to log on and find out.

Nevius wrote “Saint Mary Immaculate Virtual High School Reunion” after attending his own online class reunion last spring. In the days leading up to it, he had been exploring the mechanics of a Zoom-based murder mystery.

“When we were all together on the reunion call, the penny dropped and I realized that a class reunion was the perfect place to try out my ideas about translating the genre into something that might work online,” he said.

Nevius’s enduring fascination with the mystery genre began at the age of 10 when he saw a production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder at the Vicarage” starring the late Jean Stapleton (perhaps best known for her role as Edith Bunker on “All in the Family”). After that, he was hooked.

“(Mysteries) engage both hemispheres of the brain,” he said. “One part of your mind appreciates that it’s entertainment, while elsewhere in your brain, a whole different group of synapses are firing as you try to figure out ‘whodunit.’ “

In 2019, Nevius won the inaugural ProArts Playwriting Competition for his sci-fi murder mystery, “Murder in the Nth Degree.” The play had been slated for a three-weekend run at ProArts Playhouse last June but was put on hold due to COVID-19.

Nevius knew the show would eventually go on, and in the interim, decided to write a Zoom play that would fully embrace the virtual format.

“I wanted to create something that was written specifically for the medium instead of trying to adapt a different play to the world of Zoom,” he explained.

He sent an early draft of “Saint Mary Immaculate Virtual High School Reunion” to Maui director, actor and writer Mark Beltzman, who unhesitatingly agreed to direct it. Beltzman assembled an ensemble cast that includes Stuart Pankin (“Not Necessarily the News,” “Dinosaurs”), Jaime Moyer (“Bob’s Burgers,” “Modern Family”), Chris McKenna (“Good Trouble,” “The Young and the Restless”) and Jennifer Candy (“Couch Candy with Jennifer Candy,” “In Vino”). The actors will perform the play live from their respective homes — and in one case, from the road.

“Saint Mary Immaculate Virtual High School Reunion” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, snappy one-liners and clever interactive elements. And there’s a fun twist: In the same vein as Jonathan Lynn’s cult classic film, “Clue,” and Rupert Holmes’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the play has multiple endings.

Agatha Christie has been called the grand dame of cozy mysteries — fun-to-read whodunits that are typically set in small towns filled with quirky characters.

“Like a cozy mystery, this play is written to appeal to people who want to relax and have a good time while still being engaged,” Nevius said. “I’m hoping that in this time of great uncertainty and stress that my little mystery provides a worthwhile distraction.”

Tickets for “Saint Mary Immaculate Virtual High School Reunion” start at $10 per registered device. A portion of every ticket sold will benefit ProArts Playhouse to help keep local theater alive on Maui. The show will be streamed live on Zoom at 4 p.m. today and tomorrow and at 11 a.m. Sunday.

The violence mostly occurs off-screen, but Nevius says the play has some of what Agatha Christie might have termed “impolite and coarse language.”

To learn more or to purchase tickets, visit www.saintmaryimmaculatereunion.com.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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