Off the Wall Theatre’s tiny space plays host to a moody drama as it presents Night Must Fall. The play is set in a remote home in Essex in the early 20th century. Donna Lobacz is admirably stern as Mrs. Bramson--a bitter, old wheelchair-bound woman of wealth around which the shadowy action of the thriller orbits. Jenny Kosek is subtly fascinating as Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia. As the drama opens, Kosek cleverly delivers Olivia’s disgust of Mrs. Bramson in shiftings and emotionality that serves to set the stage for the rest of the drama.
Mrs. Bramson is surrounded by people who have been pulled into her proximity. Gladys Chmiel is charming as Bramson’s longtime cook. Caitlin Kujawski Compton plays delicate and fragile in spite of a potentially imposing stage presence in the role of the maid Dora. Mark Neufang smartly finds great complexity in the character of her former lover Dan, who ingratiates himself with Mrs. Bramson. There’s a lot of emotion in and around the ensemble that finds counterpoint in a powerfully subdued Jeremy Welter as a painfully mild-mannered man looking to wed Olivia. Those familiar with Welter’s dynamic strengths onstage may find it odd. He’s just so...boldly flaccid and inert, which makes the role work beautifully and lends a really important sort of...lower register to the drama to keep it all grounded properly.
Once things have settled-down in establishing relations between an ensemble at Mrs. Bramson’s estate, a heroically sinister James Strange shows-up in the role of a police inspector who has come to investigate the disappearance of a woman in the area. Playwright Emilyn Williams spends much of the rest of the thriller allowing characters to interact with and suspect each other of kidnapping or murder. It’s a script that makes for a rather tight two hours in a small theatre.
At the center of the drama is a mysterious chemistry between Kosek and Neufang as Olivia and Dan. There’s a lot between the two of them that is totally unspoken and largely ineffable. Silences and glances come across almost...symphonically between the two of them as their conflict pushes the story through much of the time between the beginning and end of the drama. At times the drama seems ridiculously amplified...but with Kosek and Neufang there’s a balance which allows the overblown intensity to work in such a small space.
Light, Sound and Mood
Aiding matters considerably are lighting and sound design. Director Dale Gutzman and Technical Director David Roper splash lights in strange spaces across the weirdly cluttered landscape of the home. Jake Russell has provided just enough of a musical soundscape to slightly amplify the mood and allow the emotional reality of the drama a somewhat stylishly cozy place in which to reside.
I was given the option of a couple of different places to sit...and might have made the mistake of sitting in the front row. Typically I love getting as close as possible to a studio drama, but...once again I seemed to have forgotten just how hot it gets at the Off the Wall...particularly in months when it’s also warmer outside. The heat from the theatre AND the heat of the lights brings things over to the toasty side of uncomfortable, but that lack of physical comfort can ratchet-up the emotional discomfort of a compellingly moody drama for late April and early May.
Enter the theatre and Kosek is huddled in character amidst shadows waiting for everything to start again. It’s quite a journey.
Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Night Must Fall runs through May 6 at Off the Wall’s space on 127 East Wells St. For ticket reservations, call 414-484-8874 or visit Off the Wall online.