It’s easy to appreciate this Grand Daddy of psychological murder mysteries with its stellar casting, early glimpses into emotional deviant behavior, and case study portrayal of misplaced affection, all delivered in the parlor of a spectacularly designed set ( James Wolk).
It’s always fun to see what famous actors do with a handy script, analyze what’s so special about their performance, contemplate why they get so much attention and acclaim. Celebrities have been trotting to D.C’s boards recently with regularity – Valerie Harper in Looped, and the grand dame of theater, Helen Mirren as Phedre, and now Olney gets a chance to wow us with stage and television veteran actress, Rosemary Prinz playing the role of Mrs. Bramson. As crotchety elder matron of the mansion, Bramson is a female Scrooge who is as miserly in doling out pennies from her hidden, fully endowed vaults as she is manipulative, needy and all around pain in the Preparation H territory. That Prinz can bring shreds of humanity to the character with her fidgety mannerisms and unceasing demands is a testament to her artistry, emotional breadth and endearing stage presence. She takes Bramson on an emotional rollercoaster of a journey and with the script’s deft touch, portrays the delicate underpinnings of hurt and insecurity that helped to shape her.
Prinz is ably assisted by some of the finest actors in the Metro area, and all rise to the occasion to deliver their best, despite the sketchy character development in the script. For example, jewel in the crown Julie-Ann Elliott isn’t given much to work with as the live-in niece Olivia, reduced to living on the good graces of her whining and complaining aunt, but that doesn’t stop Elliot from wrestling some effective moments out of her character who seems hell bent on delusional self destruction. Olivia rejects a perfectly suitable though rather foppish “gentleman caller,” nicely played by Carl Randolph, while getting titillating pleasure from the unsavory bad-boy bell hop, Dan, played with fiendish psychotic glee by Tim Getman.
Anne Stone gets some well deserved appreciation as an outspoken, belligerent kitchen maid who for some reason has enough leverage in the household to put Mrs. Grumpy Pants in her place, calls her out, and tells it like it is. With her no-nonsense manner and deliberate stance, she would make a mean Mrs. Lovett making tasty meat pies with the remains of the old lady, pearls and all. Paul Morella, Kathleen Akerley and Briel Banks round out the great cast squeezing as much dignity as they can in their supporting parts.
But the show belongs to the duo performance of Prinz and Getman, and what a dancing partnership they make as needy elder Bramson and her accommodating companion, Dan. Once he comes on the scene (and realizes the hefty stash tucked in a vault), he becomes her attentive confidante, never far from her needy grasp. He strokes her ego, tends to her never ending demands, gets her tea, gathers her shawl, and careens her wheelchair around like his very life depends on her happiness and well-being. Getman digs deep into the character’s psyche, goes beyond a static Norman Bates portrayal and instead, delivers a careful rendition of a conflicted, tortured and tormented soul. Bramson shines with delight in his undivided attention, and the rest of the household is so relieved to pass her on to somebody else that they cheerfully ignore the obvious signs that he could very well be the psychopathic killer on the loose.
And that, if anything, is the main distraction in the piece, and this is not a spoiler alert. Unlike the modern spin-offs from this genre which have become more sophisticated with time, Night Must Fall makes no pretense of who the gruesome killer of a young woman in a neighboring bungalow could be. The hints fall like flies and the characters are so staunchly oblivious to the obvious that it starts to feel like a parody of an old ‘Murder She Wrote’ episode. At the end, Olivia literally steps over a body and still succumbs to the treacherous lout’s advances. Although subtlety is not writer Emlyn Williams’ strong suit, the fact that this 1930’s hit still manages to deliver some spine tingling suspense, aided by moody lights and sound design by Dennis Parichy and Jarrett C. Pisani, reflects its strength and keeping power that rivals the best.
In the capable hands of director John Going and talented cast, Night Must Fall shows how the elementary components of the psychological thriller fit together and work without gimmicks, special effects, unexpected twists or thumps in the night. You won’t look at a hat box the same way again.
Night Must Fall
Written by Emlyn Williams
Directed by John Going
Produced by Olney Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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