Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Night Must Fall

Xander Layden as Dan, Debbie Sampson as Mrs. Terrence and Alayna Chamberland as Dora

“Night Must Fall” at Olympia Little
reviewed by Alec Clayton

“Night Must Fall” at Olympia LittleTheatre is a psychological thriller with a few fascinating characters and some intelligent humor and interesting insights into the human condition – all despite a plot that is rather dull.
Speaking of dull, at least one character in this play is entertaining precisely because he is rather dull. I’m speaking of Hubert, played with great style and insight into the character by Tim Goebel. He’s in love with Olivia (Sara J. Geiger), who quite rightly calls him an unmitigated bore. Hubert really serves no purpose in the story, but Goebel portrays him as such an uptight, bumbling snob that he’s great fun to watch.

As a thriller, “Night Must Fall” is not very thrilling, and as a mystery it is lackluster, and I for one didn’t care who the murderer was. But outstanding direction by Pug Bujeaud and some fine acting by a couple of newcomers to the stage plus one returning veteran actor saved it from being an absolute yawn.

The newcomers are Sara J. Geiger, a 17-year-old senior at Tumwater High School who plays the part of Olivia, and 19-year-old Xander Layden, a student at South Puget Sound Community College, as Dan. The returning veteran is Diana Purvine as Mrs. Bramson. Purvine is returning to area stages after a 25-year hiatus.

“Night Must Fall” is not a whodunit. The identity of the murderer is pretty clear all along. Furthermore, none of the major characters seem to know or care very much about the victim. The body is found outside Mrs. Bramson’s Essex, England home. It’s a woman’s body with a missing a hand, and later it is revealed that the victim’s head is missing too. Ostensibly at least a few of the inhabitants and guests are horrified, but from my seat in the audience they didn’t seem truly fearful. It seemed rather like, if the play were contemporary and not set in 1938, they might have seen the report of the murder on TV and casually talked about it over lunch.
Of course the killer is eventually revealed, which is a surprise to nobody, but the essence of the play is not the mystery but rather the strained relationships between Mrs. Bramson, her niece, Olivia, and Dan, the charming young stranger.

Purvine plays the cynical, spiteful, imperious Mrs. Bramson with relish. Early on she seems to hate everyone and treats servants and relatives alike as her personal slaves, her venom is magnificent (although some of her shouting was ear piercing). And then when Dan shows up and acts like the devoted son she always wanted, she becomes almost giddy with newfound happiness. 

A 25-year absence from performing hasn’t dulled Purvine’s skill in the least. 

Diana Purvine as Mrs. Bramson and Jamie Jenson as Nurse Libby

Olivia is the most difficult character to pull off, as she is intelligent, restrained, and a pretty good match for both Hubert and Mrs. Bramson in their verbal sparring matches. The future of theater looks good when a high school senior can nail a role like this.

Layden’s role as Dan is also quite a demanding role for an inexperienced actor, and he meets the challenge. When he first appeared on stage I thought he was too visibly acting until it was revealed that his character was, in fact, putting on an act. Layden plays this role as a person who is alternately charming and disgusting, and sometimes pathetic and scary. And he does it all with a subtle Welsh or Irish brogue. 
Tim Goebel as Hubert, Debbie Sampson as Mrs. Sampson and Sara J. Geiger as Olivia

Another actor of note is Alayna Chamberland as Dora the maid. She is comically animated, especially in her many stormy exits when the expressions on her face – purposely hidden from her employer – indicate that she might be thrilled to stab the old lady in the heart. But if Dora’s guarded spite is intended to misdirect people trying to figure out whodunit it didn’t work that way; her series of expressive exits is simply a charming running joke. Unfortunately, since Olympia Little Theatre has a thrust stage with seating on three sides, those precious expressions are hidden not only from Mrs. Bramson, which is intended, but from three-fourths of the audience. 

Building a set for such a thrust stage presents special challenges. Usually sets at OLT consist of a backdrop with doors and windows and pieces of furniture scattered about the floor. The set for “Night Must Fall” (designed by Bujeaud and Matt Moller with props by Vanessa Postil and Austin C. Lang) follows this model, but the windows, doors and curtains along the back wall are much more elaborate than their usual, and the furnishings and other props are quite beautiful with meticulous attention to detail. The only problem with the set being that many of the pieces are too close to the audience – I observed a few of the patrons having difficulty getting past props to get to their seats.

In summation, I liked the acting and a lot of the dialogue, and I was impressed with the set, but I was not particularly swept away by the play.

WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 25
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
TICKETS: $10-$14, available at Yenney Music Company on Harrison Avenue (360-943-7500) or
INFORMATION: 360-786-9484,

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