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The Shaw Festival’s lunchtime series, featuring bits of bite-sized theater on a menu otherwise filled with heavy entrees, rarely disappoints.

The two choices for this year’s midday appetizer – just enough to whet your appetite for “Guys and Dolls” or “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” are Susan Glaspell’s haunting pint-sized thriller, “Trifles,” and Eugene O’Neill’s rickety but charming first effort, “A Wife for Life.”

Glaspell’s play, hailed as one of the finest one-acts in the canon and roundly embraced by feminists, plays out in the eerie aftermath of a gruesome murder. The actors enter from four directions, humming a sort of mournful harmony that effectively establishes the show’s ethereal tone.

The action, what there is of it, happens in the dim light of a dirty farmhouse kitchen. The lady of the house, now locked up in the town jail, is suspected of strangling her sleeping husband with a rope. As the menfolk poke around upstairs and try in vain to deduce a motive, the two women who remain in the front room do some quick detective work of their own.

Though the suspect’s guilt is not very much in question, the dark motivation for her deed lends the affair a layer of intrigue and complexity that the women keep to themselves.

As Linda Ben-Zvi writes in the program notes, what Glaspell’s women say is as important as what they don’t say. As Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, the two hard-eyed women at the heart of the story, Kaylee Howard and Julia Molnar are masters of the pregnant pause, adept in the ways of implying deep violence with only their eyes and inflection. It’s a joy, and also a kind of haunting horror, to watch them work.

Next to Glaspell’s beloved mini-masterpiece, Eugene O’Neill’s “A Wife for Life” looks like exactly the piece of unpolished juvenilia it is. Which makes sense, as it was the great American dramatist’s first play, which he later disowned and attempted, unsuccessfully, to destroy.

We should be glad he didn’t. Though the piece is probably more interesting to O’Neill scholars and seasoned theatergoers interested in tracing the patterns of his career, its proximity to “Trifles” elevates it to something more.

Shaw Festival vet Benedict Campbell is the driving force of this production as a gruff old prospector who discovers that his business partner has had an affair with his estranged wife. His humor and calculated overacting works perfectly with O’Neill’s hokey script and with the perfect earnestness of a performance from Jeff Irving as his young counterpart.

It’s by no means a great play, but the Shaw Festival has turned it into a great playgoing experience.

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“Trifles” and “A Wife for Life” Rating: 3½ stars (out of four)

Description: Two short plays presented by the Shaw Festival through Oct. 12 in the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com