Director Sharyn Case asks us to consider Emlyn Williams’s murder mystery “Night Must Fall” as a period piece, with a dose of Alfred Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. We do and, as a result, this Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theater production thrives. Locating the story in an English town, Greg Fristsche’s set enhances the cast’s accents, characterizations, and costumes. Giving the otherwise pieces-in-a-jigsaw characters some psychological depth extends it beyond the run of the mill whodunit.
Mrs. Bramson (Harriet C. Whitmyer) a material rich though emotionally needy aunt to Olivia Grayne (Erica Farnsworth), surrounds herself with Nurse Libby (Marilyn Gibson), a wisecracking caregiver, Mrs. Terrance (Geraldine D. Fuentes), a been-there, done-that cook, and Dora Parkoe (Darya Harris), a nervous Nelly maid. The house is a-twitter at the not-so-coincidental simultaneous disappearance of an attractive young townswoman and the appearance of Dan (Harold Dershimer), a scoundrel who has gone and made Dora preggers. Mrs. Bramson won’t fire her if she can have a word with the young man, to ensure that he’ll do the right thing.
It’s con-at-first-sight. The unctuous Dan wins over Mrs. Bramson and pretty much ignores Dora for the rest of the play, casting his eyes instead on the pile of cash the dowager keeps in her safe as well as on Olivia, attractive, intelligent, sensitive (she writes sonnets), and yearning for someone more manly, more dangerous than her milquetoast suitor Hubert Laurie (played excruciatingly well by Cort Huckabone).
Sparks fly and tension mounts, especially when the house staff, not trusting him one bit, finds that Dan has in his possession a suspiciously glued-shut box into which could conceivably fit, say, a severed head, which happens to be the only bit missing of the unfortunate young woman who has turned up dead. The as-expected ending doesn’t dilute the creepy ending, especially if you keep your eyes on Farnsworth’s face as the resolution plays out. It’s priceless. We knew Dan was nuts. But Olivia?
The casts turns in a fine ensemble performance. Whitmyer turns in a rousing performance as a woman of bluster, whose only claim to authority over her brood (it certainly isn’t moral) is that she has money and everyone else, including Olivia, who’s treated as if she were a member of the wait staff, doesn’t. She’s mercurial and yet unexpectedly (and for us, delightfully) gooey when Dan works his infernal silver tongue devil magic on her. Harris’s Dora, an English Rose by any other name, is so perfectly timid, dropping things, stammering, flummoxed by this pregnancy business, that we marvel that she even got that way in the first place. Dershimer’s Dan initially seems like nothing more than a here-today-gone-tomorrow Lothario and crook. The final scene when he let his crazy out provides us with a couple of memorable theatrical moments. Finally, in an especially fine performance, Farnsworth’s Olivia nicely captures the nuances of a young woman who, if Dan didn’t come along, would have ended up like Emily Dickinson: starkly virginal, burning with the desire to anywhere-but-there, and expressing herself in poems with a face that barely contains some fire within.
Performances are 8pm, Fri. & Sat., 2pm, Sun. The show runs until July 16. Tickets are $12-22. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. For more info call 494-1014, option 1, or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.