- Courtesy Of T. Charles Erikson Photography
- Michael Barra and Sara Haider in Wait Until Dark
Two of the great pleasures in a thriller are knowing exactly who the bad guys are and getting a chance to feel a whisker of fear while avoiding personal danger. Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark offers these exact gratifications, plus some surprises for the viewer. The Dorset Playhouse staging has great production values and two impressive performances. The finale, played in darkness, is less about inducing skin-crawling fright and more about capitalizing on the audience's instinctive apprehension for a woman in jeopardy.
Knott concocts a fine suspense recipe. The ingredients are predictable but tangy: a corrupt ex-cop, a resilient housewife who happens to be blind, an upstanding husband, a charming stranger, a bratty teenager and a psychopathic villain. To stir them together, the playwright has a criminal plant stolen goods on the unknowing husband, Sam.
The loot is small enough to be hidden in a doll, and the doll is innocuous enough for Sam to leave in the Greenwich Village apartment he shares with his wife, Susan. As a housewife, Susan manages well, but the couple can call on Gloria, the troubled teen from the upstairs apartment, to help with chores.
The alpha bad guy, Harry Roat, engages the ex-cop, Sergeant Carlino, to help him track down the doll. Sitting at the center of this plot is the perfectly innocent and defenseless Susan, but the unexpected visitor, Mike, arrives at just the right time to rescue her.
Knott's play premiered on Broadway in 1966 and was adapted into a film that earned Audrey Hepburn a best actress Oscar nomination. Dorset uses a 2013 revision by Jeffrey Hatcher, who changed the period from the mid-'60s to 1944, a smart improvement.
By shifting the setting to wartime, Hatcher makes the period more exotically distant and overlays a moral darkness that suits the thriller genre. It's a world of dial telephones, war buddies shaken by combat, newfound moral relativism and bulky white refrigerators.
The play's abiding theme is vulnerability. Carlino and Roat both break into the apartment — this home is no castle. Because Susan can't see, she may fear something that's not there, or walk into danger that the audience sees but she cannot. The criminals trick Susan into doubting her husband; suspicion is easy to trigger and the fastest way to disorient a victim.
The plot contains satisfying twists and turns that shouldn't be spoiled. Knott's neat tower of suspense is devious yet easy to follow. The problem is, in this production, the supporting characters are played too formulaically to surprise us as much as the events do.
Director Jackson Gay concentrates on the thriller's formidable staging challenges, and most of her choices are adept. The story has a great deal of action, which is neatly supported here by the richly textured set created by scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader. Susan's apartment is at once a hiding place and a minefield, and viewers can linger over fastidious details of a period kitchen and bohemian brick walls. A sense of menace starts with light streaking through dirty street-level windows high on the wall of the basement apartment.
Gay sets a brisk pace, not exactly in harmony with Knott's leisurely storytelling and emphasis on watching the characters think through their next moves. This director focuses on action, ranging from big gestures to subtle movements that the viewer better not miss. For the dramatic climax, lighting designer Paul Whitaker makes darkness a character, Susan's only ally.
In the final confrontation, two characters alternate between seizing and losing the upper hand, and here Gay allows the movement to get muddy. With only sound and a few visual hints, the audience must imagine what's happening. It's a great theatrical concept, but this production's battle was too murky.
No murkiness clouds Sara Haider's strong performance as Susan. From her first entrance, when she walks right past a knife-wielding crook, the audience roots for her. Haider shows that blindness is not about failing to see but about staying marvelously alert, using all the remaining senses. As she moves with quiet composure, we realize she distinguishes things we can't, locating sounds and remembering remarks. Haider never makes the character pitiable; she's too busy using her intelligence to engage with the world she can perceive.
Manu Kumasi turns in a standout performance as Mike, the soldier poised to be a hero, giving him a warm, strong, aw-shucks presence. He's happy to do Susan a favor, and his calm confidence soothes her. As she gets to know him, he has to make some big choices, and Kumasi subtly shows the stakes as Mike decides which course to take.
Michael Barra makes Carlino a good, solid thug. This is a criminal trying to stay one step ahead of a bad end, and Barra shows him stretched to the limit as he thinks on his feet. As Roat, Keith D. Gallagher gets his character meter stuck on "pure evil." Gallagher never lets Roat enjoy his sense of mastery or his egghead vocabulary. Still, no niceties are required for a guy who names his switchblade Geraldine.
Eric Gilde plays Sam, the sensible husband who likes showing affection with teasing banter. Gilde doesn't quite hit the loving notes under the jibes, but he reveals his concern for his wife by challenging her to prove her independence.
As teenage Gloria, Acadia Colan doubles down on insolence. She dodges the cute kid cliché but rushes past conveying the reasons for her sulkiness.
This production is visually impressive, but with skin-deep bad guys and a breathless pace, it doesn't quite forge the iron grip of suspense on the viewer. Still, it's a vivid battle of good versus evil, thanks to Haider's combination of defenselessness and courage. What keeps viewers engaged is discovering that nothing is what it seems and that weakness can be strength.