When the tense thriller Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott was first performed in 1966 it was set in the present. The story of a blind woman targeted by three menacing men in her basement apartment gripped in unexpected ways – in general terms, it’s film that audiences turn to when it comes to action/thrillers – yet theatre-goers in both London and Broadway clutched their armrests until knuckles turned white as they witnessed live on stage a disadvantaged heroine use her disability to its best potential when thwarting her attackers.
Revisiting the piece with an update wouldn’t work. With the kind of technology each of us now possesses, the unfolding events could not occur; conflicts would resolve in seconds. Plus, simply recreating the original 1966 production wasn’t going to work for modern audiences, either. Most of us already familiar with the characters and their outcomes would question why. Why revisit when we already know the twists so well? With nothing fresh to add you might as well stay at home and replay the Audrey Hepburn DVD.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher had the answer. Instead of an update, the best way to revive Wait Until Dark was to backdate. Turn the clocks to war-torn America, 1944; design the play to appear like the pulp fiction/film noir of the day as rays of light from window blinds cast ominous, striped shadows across the room; make character changes, tighten the script, add some colorful expletives and change the contents of that all-important doll from heroin to something you can believe desperate low-lifes of the time would kill for.
That’s the production currently running at Herberger Center downtown and it’s not hard to see why a company like Arizona Theatre Company would be attracted. Wait Until Dark’s story arc may be familiar and the outcome may be essentially the same but it’s this new look with its Murder My Sweet approach that makes the piece appear fresh again. It’s not exactly relevant but by giving the piece a period overhaul, Wait Until Dark has the chance to remain alive in theatre and to chill new audiences all over again, and that’s exactly what it does; its final twenty minutes remains a genuine nail-biter.
Brooke Parks brings a new sense of vulnerability to blind Susan that didn’t always exist before; it has you rooting for the woman the moment she makes her appearance. Knowing what’s in store for the character backed by the knowledge that ways of contacting others in an emergency are not available for a cornered victim in 1944’s America, her terror is all the more effective – she’s not simply blind, she’s literally on her own. But there’s more.
Playwright adapter Hatcher hasn’t simply moved the story to an earlier time; he’s injected self-deprecating humor that helps humanize Susan further. When a conversation about another character having to wear glasses is brought up, Susan, who only recently lost her sight, responds with a sardonic, “Glasses. Such a burden.”
With this new time and style, a sense of creepiness is established early. The weakness of Knott’s original work was always in that first scene – for a play that promises chills and spills, scene one has always felt remarkably pedestrian – yet the new addition of being an atmospheric forties piece adds a depth to the conversation of the dark intruders and the motivation of the bad guys that never before existed. Plus, it helps that there’s a dead body recently murdered hanging on the back of the closet door. It all adds to a heightened sense of expectation – you know what’s coming, but now you’re wondering how adapter Hatcher and director David Ira Goldstein are going to get you there.
Vicki Smith’s newly designed basement apartment – where the front door opens into the hallway, not the apartment’s landing – is a wonder of details enhanced by Don Darnutzer’s atmospheric, shadow-casting lighting. The mostly colorless set is full of angled designs and pieces of cumbersome furniture we know will eventually hinder Susan as she attempts to negotiate the space in order to impede her attackers. Arriving early gives audiences the chance to take in the rich quality of the detailed set: the fuse box on the wall; the pipes that lead to the apartment above; the Venetian blinds that will play an important role in the action. All of these elements, plus Brian Jerome Peterson’s ominous sound design where the electronic vibration of the fridge hums every time the door opens, add to what we already sense will be a killer climax.
It’s not a perfect piece: Gloria, the young girl from the apartment above, still annoys, though Lauren Schaffel humanizes the foot-stomping teenager with the temper tantrum to the point where you actually begin to like the character. Plus while Ted Koch succeeds in making his villainous Roat both dangerous and effectively unpredictable, his leather clad look and overall chilling manner seems modern and somewhat out of place in 1944.
But it’s that ending that audiences will take with them as they leave the theatre, and its here where director Goldstein successfully juggles every element – Susan’s blindness, the fridge, the knife, gasoline on the carpet, the shadows and the ultimate plunge into total darkness – making this retro-fitted Wait Until Dark once again the terrifying, white-knuckle ride it always was.
For more regarding remaining times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ATC website.