By John Lyle Belden
“Night Must Fall,” a classic thriller by Emlyn Williams, who also starred in its original 1935 London production, haunts the stage of Main Street Productions in Westfield, directed by Ian Hauer.
In an English countryside estate, bitter Mrs. Bramson (Julie Wallyn) rules from her wheelchair, tolerated by sassy housekeeper Mrs. Terence (Ashley Engstrom) and timid maid Dora (Cassie Knowling), and with a hint of familial obligation by niece Olivia (Rachel Kelso), whom she uses, with unearned distrust, as a personal secretary. When we meet them, Bramson is attended to by visiting Nurse Libby (Lizzie Schultz) while milquetoast family friend Hubert (Matt Hartzburg) tries in vain to woo Olivia.
When the matron seeks to sack Dora for tardiness, the girl confesses to be pregnant. Morally outraged, Bramson nonetheless keeps the maid on the condition that the man who will be the father present himself and commit to marriage. Enter “Babyface” Dan (Adam Phillips) whose lilting peasant voice seems to carry a hypnotic note, quickly winning over the usually suspicious woman.
Soon, Scotland Yard Inspector Belsize (Ian A. Montgomery) visits, inquiring regarding the disappearance of a woman last seen at a local nightspot Dan had been known to frequent. This clinches Olivia’s already growing suspicions, but while she makes her own investigation of their handsome new houseguest, could she be slipping under his spell as well?
This drama also features Brad Staggs in an ominously foreshadowing voiceover.
Under Hauer’s direction, Williams’ script feels ahead of its time as a tense character study of sociopathy – “What’s behind his eyes?” Olivia marvels. Our 2023 audience, having seen true-crime shows, perhaps read such books and heard the podcasts, can only watch as the blind side of human nature fails to foresee what unfolds. These things couldn’t happen decades ago in beautiful genteel Essex, England – until they do.
Wallyn manages to keep Mrs. Bramson equal parts harsh and human. She is not a dupe so much as failing to realize she is being played like an instrument by a virtuoso of persuasion, which in its own way helps us to feel for her, despite her edges.
Kelso is given a lot to work with in two acts, managing to keep pace with Olivia’s odd trajectory. Engstrom adds to the humor factor with Terence’s gaelic-accented commentary, a very what-you-gonna-do-fire-me attitude that Bramson somehow respects. Knowling’s Dora is a bit of a leaf-on-the-wind character, who craves not being the center of attention and is visibly relieved when talk of marrying Dan seems to cease.
Montgomery makes the most of his few scenes as the Inspector, exuding authority while wielding it with tact. Meanwhile, Hartzburg keeps his softy Hubert fairly likable, a character sadly out of his depth who should find love in a much nicer play.
If only posh folk understood the warning of ironic nicknames like “Babyface.” Phillips eases into a character that grifts as easily as breathing. His Dan blurs the line between kind and suspicious behavior so well, he toys with the tension both on stage and among the audience right up to the end.
“Night Must Fall” four more times, Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 16-19, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get tickets and info at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.