10/23/2019 NIGHT MUST FALL Georgia Ensemble Theatre
THE EXQUISITE APPEAL OF OLD CHESTNUTS
(Preview Note: This performance was a preview, but, IMHO, apart from a minor lighting glitch or two and a miniscule bit of mush-mouth, it was opening-ready.)
My first encounter with Emlyn Williams’ 1935 thriller, Night Must Fall, was a late-night TV viewing of its 1964 movie adaptation (starring Albert Finney). It terrified me and has stuck in my memory as a result.
So, it was with a profound sense of anticipation that I approached Georgia Ensemble’s staging of it, and, thankfully, even in this preview performance, the show clicks on every level, enhanced by one of the best (and more sinister) sound designs I’ve seen (well heard) in this venue.
Originally set in Essex England, GET director Shannon Eubanks has chosen to move it to the dank and drizzly New England coast, specifically New Canaan Connecticut. This succeeds in making the overall tone more creepily accessible to us warm-blooded Georgians. She has also consolidated the original three-act structure into two fast paced acts. This succeeds in making it tighter and, well, more contemporary, despite keeping the 1935 setting.
To put it bluntly, this old dog still hunts! And bites!
So, what’s it all about?
We are introduced to the elegant sitting room of Mrs. Bramson, a wheelchair-bound tyrant lording over her household of (semi) cowed servants and her niece, Olivia. When one maid confesses to being made pregnant by a young laborer at a local inn, Mrs. Bramson invites the man to her house, the better to ensure he “does the right thing” for the young maid. Dan proves to be a pleasant fellow, a world-class charmer with a wink in his eye and a compliment on his lips. He quickly wins over Mrs. Bramson, insinuating himself into the household.
Did I mention that a local woman has gone missing, and her dismembered corpse is soon discovered in an adjacent “rubbish dump?”
Eventually, a swag-bag full of foreshadow-y elements make themselves known – a safe full of cash, a key kept tightly close, an innocent hat box, a supply of chocolate, a suspicious detective, a rack of lies. And a typically New England thunderstorm seems to pop up at just the right moment to propel the plot rapidly to its inevitably violent conclusion.
Did I mention the hat box? I guess I did.
Ms. Eubanks has gathered a terrific cast to tell this tale of terror – Jonathan Horne OWNS the stage as Dan, quickly making himself “at home,” quickly charming even the most skeptical of witnesses. In other words, he convinces us that “inviting him to stay” is not only a good idea, but an inevitable course. Even though we KNOW the conventions of melodrama, even though we KNOW he has to be hiding more than a few sinister secrets, we still LIKE him.
As Mrs. Bramson, the always-dependable Susan Shalhoub Larkin hits every grumpy note right, showing us the force of nature that is Mrs. Bramson, showing us the strong arm that can command so effectively, even from a wheelchair.
Olivia is a more problematic character – she makes some choices that seem, on first notice, to be WTF odd. But Christina Leidel makes them all make sense. Her portrayal is a vivid portrait of a young woman of the thirties, aggravated by the gender roles the times are forcing her to inhabit, longing to “rattle the cage” of her situation.
In supporting roles, Doyle Reynolds is fine as a hapless suitor of Olivia, obviously the wrong sort of partner for such a strong-willed woman. Joanna Daniel is a hoot as sassy cook Mrs. Terence, as is Joe Sykes, as the Inspector (playing him as a Dashiell Hammett character invading an Agatha Christie plot). Rebecca Botter (as the pregnant maid Dora) and Eliana Marianes (sporting a credible New England accent as a visiting nurse) fill out the cast with grace and appeal.
The set (by Barrett Doyle) is a beautiful construct of New England elegance, backed by a very effective cyc that looms over the action like the inevitable approach of night. D. Donnor McVey’s lighting is mostly effective, especially the signaling of day and night and the approach of rain. I would have liked to see more “practical” sconces to show the source of artificial paraffin lights – which of coursed play a pivotal plot role -- but that’s more of an “I’d’ve preferred” than a “he shoulda oughta” note.
As I stated previously, Preston Goodson’s sound design -- effects, music, ambiance -- are the driving force of the effective moodiness here. Grandfather Clock ticks, ominous music, sudden jarring crashes, and, of course, rain and thunder, beautifully paint a soundscape that serves to enhance our edge-of-he sea experience.
And yes, you will become well acquainted with the edge of your seat.
Emlyn Williams was a Welsh writer and actor (and, in fact, played Dan in the first production of Night Must Fall). His play used to be a favorite of small theatres, but it seems fairly unknown now (judging by conversations I heard among Wednesday’s audience) despite a 1999 Broadway revival with Matthew Broderick. It remains a touchstone in the history of thrillers, as it was one of the first plays to “get under the skin” of a killer, showing us the “psychological roots of evil.”
And, especially under Shannon Eubanks talented direction, it remains a crackling good thriller!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #GETNightMustFall)