At the New England Repertory Playhouse
As a title, "The Old Ladies" lacks the pizazz of "Hellzapoppin'" and "Arsenic and Old Lace" to draw the crowds. That a play of that name is being produced in a tiny theatre holding at most a hundred people, by a tiny company of hardworking semi-pros, might arouse at most a little sympathetic interest--not enough, however, for a trip into town to look for that theatre at 36 Joy Street (off Beacon Street a block west of the State House.) Only, therefore, the probable truth that "The Old Ladies" is the most gripping play that has appeared on a Boston stage this season can be reasonably considered just cause for an excursion in to see it.
Adapted by Rodney Ackland from a Hugh Walpole novel, this is one of those thrillers of the dirty-work-among-the-tea-cosies school -- "Angel Street" and "Ladies in Retirement" are others. Like them, it is concerned with the psychological fascinations of foul play in a secluded house in Victorian England. The old ladies, three of 'em, are boarders in a rooming house, each passing away her last few years alone. A conflict of personalities between the sadistic, half-crazed Agatha Payne and her high-strung, fragile neighbor, May Beringer, provides the substance of the drama. Starting slowly, the play generates suspense in an ever-heightening increase in tension, without benefit of creaky floorboards and family ghosts. And when it has reached its telling and climactic crisis, which very properly coincides with the limits of audience endurance, it stops.
The three meaty principal roles are played with astonishing skill of characterization for a production of this kind. Constructed at a cost of $9, the set combines accurate detail with suggestion in the right proportions in presenting on a small stage the cross section of three rooms, a hall, and a staircase, which is required. And Robert de Lany's direction has heightened the dramatic effect of every tense moment. "The Old Ladies," next to be presented Wednesday, offers one of the most completely satisfying entertainments in Boston this year.