Theatre Review: ‘Night Must Fall’ at Georgia Ensemble Theatre

Phots by Casey Gardner

Georgia Ensemble Theatre is presenting Emlyn Williams’ psychological thriller “Night Must Fall,” directed by Shannon Eubanks, running through Nov. 10.

Williams, a Welsh playwright and actor, wrote and starred in his own play in 1935; it was set in Essex, England, but Georgia Ensemble has moved the locale to near New Canaan, Connecticut. So there are no British accents.

I shall say right off the bat that this is an excellent Halloween entertainment; but perhaps not if you live alone in a remote bungalow near a forest.

I first saw “Night Must Fall” many years ago when I was in college; there are aspects of this “well made play,” as theatre folk might call it, that I have never forgotten. I remember the mounting terror in Act II! But we must backtrack.

The play has been made into a film three times (1937, 1954, 1964); savvy people in show business have always recognized the commercial viability of this show. Nothing like a possible psychopathic killer to hold one’s interest.

This show needs expert actors, and the Ensemble has them. Mrs. Bramson (Susan Shalhoub Larkin) is a wealthy widow, a fussy, fretful, thoroughly unpleasant elderly lady who is waited on by Dora, a maid (Rebecca Botter); Mrs. Terence, a cook (Joanna Daniel); and Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia (Christina Leidel). There is also Nurse Libby (Eliana Marianes). Perhaps most elderly folks would rejoice at having all this help at their disposal; not Mrs. Bramson. Nothing pleases her.

She even treats her niece as “help,” but Olivia, attractive, intelligent, and a bit mysterious herself, can more than hold her own. For instance, she easily keeps Hubert (Doyle Reynolds), an undynamic suitor in whom she has little interest, on a string. She’s looking for a little more vitality.

Dora reveals she is pregnant; instead of dismissing her, Mrs. Bramson decides to persuade the father to marry her. The father turns out to be a handsome, charming young man named Dan (Jonathan Horne), a former bellhop down on his luck. Mrs. Bramson takes one look at Dan, who instantly sizes up her neediness and longing, and promptly takes him on as her assistant, forgetting about the pregnancy.

About this time a young woman goes missing in the town; then a human hand is discovered in the rubbish outside the house; soon the body of the missing woman is found, headless. Olivia, who has never liked or trusted Dan (unlike her aunt), suspects that he is not only involved, but likely the murderer. She further believes that he keeps the head in a small, sealed hatbox that he has brought with him.

Dan is questioned by Inspector Belsize (Joe Sykes), who seems rather brusque and full of himself. He’s seen it all, you know. But Dan is meek and mild and cloying and childlike—Dan, in fact, will be anything you need him to be—he’s an expert at it.

He’s certainly wrapped Mrs. Bramson around his finger; he calls her “Mother,” and she coos with delight. She sees what she wants and needs to see—like many of us, no? Until it’s too late.

Act I is a teensy bit slow-moving (it’s 1935, and we must get in our exposition), but I like it: The actors are so polished they make it all fun. And then there’s Act II—which takes off like a shot and never lets up. This is the part I have remembered for almost 50 years—oops–didn’t mean to say that. But I challenge you to forget the suspense, horror, and revelations of Act II.

Jonathan Horne is perfectly cast: His Dan is vital, virile, subtle, and unpredictable—as we’ve said before in these pages, Mr. Horne is the real deal.

Ms. Larkin is positively masterful as Mrs. Branson. She manages to make you forget her character’s pettiness and selfishness, and we understand that she’s human like the rest of us and we care about her—a lot.

Ms. Leidel’s work was a revelation to me; I wasn’t that familiar with her work before, but I am now. With great poise and acuity she reveals the hidden aspects of her character’s cleverness and sensuousness. She’s someone whose career bears watching.

All the actors I’ve mentioned are excellent and indispensable; plaudits to them all.

Barrett Doyle’s set is gorgeous; I’d like to live on it (for awhile, anyway).

Special kudos to Preston Goodson’s sound and D. Connor McVey’s lighting—both outstanding.

Director Eubanks has done lovely work: She and her “team” have made a very good play seem great. I wouldn’t miss it.

For tickets and information, visit get.org.

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