Often times, the devil comes with a pretty face.
That’s the key to the thriller Night Must Fall, a 1935 mystery by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams now playing at Weathervane Community Playhouse in Akron. In this tale, set in a bungalow in the woods in Essex, England, wealthy widow Mrs. Bramson is an imperious old woman who makes life unbearable for the few around her.
Her plain-Jane niece, Olivia, is stuck caring for this hypochondriac at her home, Forest Corner. Yet once Irish bellhop Dan arrives on the scene, he breathes life and excitement into the gloomy home. His arrival comes soon after a woman has been murdered in the nearby woods.
Mrs. Bramson, played by the excellent Jo McGarvey, goes from a domineering bearing to becoming immediately besotted with the young Dan, played by Weathervane newcomer Jonathan Riese. She, the maids and her shy niece become swept up in the sensationalism of the murder.
The play opened on Broadway in 1936 and was adapted into a film in 1937, starring Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. It was most recently reprised on Broadway in 1999, starring Matthew Broderick as the charming yet psychotic Dan.
Playwright Williams is heavy handed in letting us know early that another murder is going to occur. Yet in the Weathervane production, suspense builds toward a heinous onstage act.
The story’s not so much a mystery because we don’t really question if another murder will occur or who will commit it. Instead, we question why, when and how it will occur.
Leading man Riese has matinee idol looks and a boyish charm as Dan, a complex role to pull off. Riese is understated as his character slowly lets his dark side slip out, but the actor successfully keeps us guessing as to what makes Dan tick.
That’s no easy feat, considering Riese, who has studied and worked in film and TV, is making his theatrical debut under director Eileen Moushey, Akron’s grand dame of murder mystery writing herself.
Riese has no problem with Dan’s charm. But when the truth about Dan first spilled out of the character during Sunday’s performance, Riese’s lines were rushed and difficult to understand, diminishing the moment’s weightiness.
The women who are drawn to Dan must walk fine lines in this play: As Mrs. Bramson, McGarvey strikes a fascinating balance between a motherly and somewhat creepier dynamic with Dan.
Jennifer Hayek’s deathly serious Olivia Walk starts out wary of the young man’s charms but becomes increasingly attracted to him. Hayek’s Olivia, who has never had a brush with evil, is believable as she’s pulled in eyes wide open by this dangerous man’s magnetism.
Rounding out the cast are Adam Alderson as the unremarkable Hubert, Olivia’s suitor; Meg Hopp as the feisty servant Mrs. Terence; Allison Good as clueless maid Dora; Tom Stephan as Inspector Belsize, who doesn’t have much to do; and Ashley Collins as a nurse.
Weathervane first produced Night Must Fall in 1939, the theater’s 41st production. It’s interesting that this mystery has had such longevity, considering its story has flaws: Dan’s relationship with a servant comes across as an afterthought and the way the old woman is ultimately left alone to face utter terror feels contrived.
Olivia is a boring character for at least half of the play but she shows glimpses of how she romanticizes the thought of a criminal act, talking about how a murderer begins his or her day in the same ordinary way as anyone else.
Most of the female characters enjoy their chance to be in the limelight due to their proximity to the original murder. They complain that their quiet lives have been disrupted yet enjoy seeing their names in articles chronicling the crime.
Through his play, Williams — who himself was known to be obsessed with grisly murder cases — is commenting on human beings’ fascination with the gruesome, the macabre and the darkness in others.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.