Review: 1930s thriller is exhilarating
Ojai Theater Relives Opening
It’s 1935 in the English countryside and a woman with a reputation for scandal is missing from a luxurious country hotel. The papers are full of it and the denizens of a quiet, isolated household near to the hotel where she was last seen are all atwitter with sensational horror. The gleeful hand-wringing, however, soon turns into a dark foreboding when the woman’s body is found in the house’s rubbish heap. Suddenly, the safe, rural home seems not so safe after all.
In order to mark the Art Center Theater’s 80th anniversary, artistic director Richard Camp (also the director of the play) looked in the vaults to 1939 to find the first play ever performed there and discovered that the distinction belonged to the popular thriller, “Night Must Fall” by Emlyn Williams.
The house in question belongs to Mrs. Bramson, a disagreeable, miserly old hypochondriac who cultivates her invalid status like a hothouse orchid, bullies her impoverished and dependent niece, Olivia, and badgers her frequently unpaid staff relentlessly.
Enter Dan, a handsome and winningly roguish, silver-tongued bellhop from the hotel where the murdered woman had stayed. He has been summoned by Mrs. Bramson because he has made her guileless maid, Dora, pregnant. It soon becomes clear he knows more about the victim than he is letting on, but is he her murderer?
Dan’s conniving nature quickly reveals itself. He flatters the old lady, encouraging her fantasies about her fragile health and pretty soon he has his feet under the table, making himself indispensable to her, but, all the while, is plotting to steal her considerable fortune.
Sindy McKay, as the foolish, beguiled Mrs. Bramson, does a wonderful job of seeming to court her own downfall, arrogantly refusing to disbelieve her own delusions right up until her final moments.
Niece Olivia, watchful, careful and clever, sees Dan’s unctuous exploitation of her aunt right from the start, but he attracts and intrigues her as much as he repulses her. Angelica Smith in the role radiates buttoned-up sexual repression and a veering confusion she can barely contain. The chemistry between her and Dan is palpable, especially in Act II as they face off psychologically. The charged atmosphere between them is mesmerizing and, on opening night, one could have heard a pin drop as the hushed audience held its breath as one. The complicated, psychological dance between the two is at the heart of the story.
The success of this play largely depends on the actor playing Dan being able to create the right balance between cheeky-chappie and dangerous seducer. In this striking production, David Nelson Taylor walks that line skillfully like a high-wire-balancing act and evokes the same sense of breathless tension. He switches from warm, glib charmer to exuding a cold, sinister menace with chilling swiftness.
The cast-supporting actors do a fine job of adding color to the piece. Olivia’s hapless suitor, Hubert, (excellently played with the right note of bland tweediness by Stephen Shareaux), acts as a foil to the charming but subliminally threatening Dan. Denise Heller is all no-nonsense practicality as the much-called-upon Nurse Libby, displaying all the patience that her crotchety patient lacks; and Dora is played with appealing ditziness by Brett Baxter. Some broad comic relief from the tension is provided by loud, Cockney housekeeper Mrs. Terence (Laura Ring). The rich, authoritative voice of Louis Graham in a robust performance as Inspector Belsize fills the theater, making the law's long reach seem inevitable.
Camp adroitly directs his well-cast actors and has assembled a skilled crew to create a handsome production. The suspense, particularly in the second act as the story reaches fever-pitch, builds convincingly, while not seeming rushed, and the psychology of this 1930s thriller still seems fresh and exhilarating for a modern audience. This is a fitting and worthy show to start off a richly varied and promising 2019 season.
Now playing at the Ojai Art Center Theater, “Night Must Fall” is a classic whodunit, broadly in the style of Agatha Christie, a psychological drawingroom drama with a sense of Hitchcockian dread.
“Night Must Fall” runs through March 10. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m For tickets, call 805-640-8797 or go to OjaiAct.org. The Ojai Art Center Theater is at 113 S. Montgomery St.
The Ojai Art Center is recognized state-wide as being the oldest continually operating non-profit Art Center. Let’s face it, 80 years is a long time to engage the community in all forms of art, music, theater, dance and more. To celebrate and honor this longevity, the Art Center Theater has mounted a reprise production of the first play ever to grace the Art Center stage – Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams.
Set in the English countryside in 1939, the psychological thriller is at once understated and complex. In other words, typically British.
Opening the action with a monologue, the role of Lord Chief Justice is played by a different member of the community every performance. What a nice way to include community leaders in the anniversary celebration.
A woman goes missing which becomes the talk of the town. The Manor’s mistress, Mrs. Bramson, is a wheelchair-bound cranky busybody. Surrounding her are a snappy Cockney cook, a nurse, a naïve young maid and an unhappy poetry-writing niece and her suitor. Enter the maid’s paramour who enchants Mrs. Bramson and settles in, to the disdain of almost everyone.
All the while the murder is still to be solved and everyone is a suspect. When the body is found in the manor’s rubbish, the local inspector arrives to question each, and the fun really begins. All the characters who live in and enter the Manor are decidedly unique and definitive in their characters.
Mrs. Bramson, played by Sindy McKay, is a crafty, controlling old woman. McKay leads the audience into her world with aplomb. She is frequently confronted by her outspoken cook, Laura Ring. The innocent Dora, the maid, is given just the right touch by Brett Baxter. Stoic Nurse Libby is given dimension by Denise Heller. The wary niece, Olivia, played by Angelica Smith, is a study to watch as her emotions are subtle yet easily readable.
Stephen Shareaux does a nice turn as Hubert, Olivia’s consistently rejected suitor. Louis Graham as the formidable Inspector Belsize is just right in the role. The quirky character of Dan, the uninvited guest who stayed, is wonderfully manic. David Nelson Taylor takes on the role with fervor.
As the play unfolds, the audience is treated to many possibilities of how it happened and who did it. There are surprises along the way as well as twists and turns, as there should be in a good murder mystery. Director Richard Camp has assembled a strong cast to perform this memorable play.
Authentic period setting of the manor’s interior is enhanced by spot-on costuming by Tracey Williams Sutton.
As a well-needed bonus, the theater now has new theater seats, a new sound and light booth (no longer in the back of the audience seating) and other small but noticeable improvements. The Arts Center thanks the community for their generosity in making these alterations possible. What a terrific way to say thank you for the last 80 years, and a grand welcome to the next 80.
Night Must Fall runs through March 10. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m., Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. General admission $25, senior and art center members, $20, under age 25 $10. Season tickets are now available for purchase. Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery, Ojai. www.ojaiact.org or (805) 640-8797 for reservations.113Night