By John Lyle Belden
“Wait Until Dark,” the suspense stage drama by Frederick Knott, relies on a belief many consider a myth, or exaggerated at best: That the blind have heightened senses to compensate for lack of sight. In the play’s adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, presented this month by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, this becomes true for Susan as she is constantly trained, both by herself and near-bullying by her husband, to be hyper-aware of her surroundings, so as to become more self-sufficient.
Rather than consider this a superhero adventure like a Daredevil comic or Netflix episode, the theme here (and lesson, if you want to draw one) is attention to detail. For Susan (played by Carly Masterson) the importance eventually becomes life-and-death, but in everyday terms it helps her avoid a stubbed toe on the furniture and to keep track of what switches are on and off. Such attention to detail is vital to our villain, Roat (Jay Hemphill), as well. He always wears gloves, has a thought-out plan, and is quick to adapt when a doll of unusual value reaches the wrong destination. Let the game of wits begin.
In Greenwich Village in 1944 (set earlier than previous stage/film versions), Carlino (Parrish Williams), a dirty ex-cop who still carries his badge, takes a quick look around a basement apartment. He is joined by Roat, who discuss the fact that their female partner had the doll on a train and hid it in the bag of the man who lives in the apartment. But when she went to get it back from him (with an innocent-sounding story), she said they couldn’t find it. Roat finds this unacceptable, as evidenced by the woman’s body hanging in the closet. But before these two can carry the corpse out, the man’s blind wife, Susan, comes home. During the intense minutes before she leaves again, the men stay perfectly still. She senses them, but assumes it is Gloria (Mary Kate Tanselle), the girl who lives upstairs whom she hires to help around the apartment, playing another nasty prank.
Susan’s husband Sam (Colby Rison) ironically makes a living with his keen eyes, as a photographer. Serving with the Marines in the War in Italy, what he saw through his camera broke him mentally. While in the hospital, he met Susan (recovering from the accident that blinded her) who suggested he recover by taking pictures of babies and brides – which is now his living.
Roat and Carlino book fake appointments to take Sam a distance away, while they work to con Susan out of the location of the doll. Complicating events is a surprise visit by Mike (Lukas Robinson), who says he’s an old Marine buddy of Sam’s. He stays around, sharing Susan’s growing suspicion of the other men’s actions. Suspense builds towards the famous climax in which Susan’s handicap becomes her biggest asset, while Gloria, who came on the scene a total brat, gets her shot at being the heroine.
Even if you’ve seen any version of the show, or know where the doll is (or why it’s special), this production, directed by Emily Rogge Tzucker, will still have you on edge. Masterson gives us a woman who, while vulnerable, is strong and resourceful, and easy to root for. Rison’s Sam comes across a bit mean, but truly loves his wife. Williams is usually reliable for comic relief, and arguably there’s a couple of moments here, but he never loses his sinister edge. Hemphill just oozes evil and the overconfidence that is Roat’s one weakness. Robinson, in his theatrical debut, works his charming character like a pro. Tanselle, as the tween coping with parental strife at home and menial work for her neighbor, plays a nice character arc from irksome to trusted partner. Note that on coming Sunday matinees, Gloria will be played by Izzy Ellis.
An old thriller that still thrills, “Wait Until Dark” plays through March 26 in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, see civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.