WAIT UNTIL DARKby Frederick Knott
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
Scenic Design—Rodney Dobbs
Lighting Design—Kenneth Farnsworth
Sound Design—Rich Frohlich
Props Design—Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Fight Director—Ashley H. White
Stage Manager—Sarah Barnes
Mike Talman—Bryan Pitts
Sgt. Carlino—Seth Johnston
Harry Roat, Jr.—Bill Jenkins
Susy Hendrix—Krishna Smitha
Sam Hendrix—Ian Mead Moore
Reviewed Performance: 8/15/2014
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
A blind woman has something that a really bad guy wants to take from her. Well, it’s a little more convoluted than that, but It’s still not hard to pick sides. You’ve got to wait until the dark for the big outcome, but if you saw Audrey Hepburn in her Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated performance, you know that good always triumphs over evil - at least that’s what we like to think.
The play’s long first scene of exposition explains in great detail how Susy’s husband came to be in possession of a doll stuffed with heroin, thinking he was doing a woman a favor. Seems the bad guy, a Mr. Roat, (great name, kinda sounds like rat) hires two con men to help him get the doll back from a woman recently blinded in an accident, by concocting an elaborate con. What ensues is a game of cat and blind mouse as the deception unfolds. Suspense and terror abound!
The Broadway production of Frederick Knott’s play was directed by Arthur Penn, opening early1966 then transferring to two other theaters before ending its run of 347 performances. The cast included Lee Remick and Robert Duvall. Ms. Remick was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The London West End production ran for nearly two years. A Broadway revival opened in 1998 where it ran for 97 performances with Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino in the cast, and a 2003 London revival, followed by a tour, changed the setting to Notting Hill. A production of the play in 2010 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was performed by students of Oxford University.
A revised version of the script by Jeffrey Hatcher opened in 2013 in Los Angeles. He backdated the story to 1944 with diamonds replacing the heroin. The text was evidently tightened slightly and a few profanities were added. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas has chosen to use the original script and, strangely, no mention of time period or location is given, although talk of Greenwich Village and the obvious low-tech telephone, references to the “ice box” instead of refrigerator, etc, give some indication that we are “back in the day,” even if we don’t know what particular day it might be.
Krishna Smitha has the leading role of Susy, and she manages to pull off the blindness really well, because if you don’t buy that, you can’t buy any of it. She goes for a slightly off-subject focus with her eyes when addressing other characters and moves confidently with believable touching of objects and furniture through the apartment. Her character has a broad arc to traverse throughout the play, from the generally cheery, plucky wife trying to be the “world’s champion blind woman” to the gradual realization of the unfolding plot surrounding her. Ms. Smitha uses facial expressions and reactions to emphasize her expanding understanding and she manages to show us Susy’s realizations, step by step, without indicating or overplaying them. It’s a well-crafted, solid performance and the audience gets to empathize with her and pull for her right ‘till the end.
Bill Jenkins plays the evil Harry Roat, Jr., an obvious pseudonym, with perhaps a little too much slickness and élan. It’s a tricky role, what with the costume and fake moustache changes to convince a blind girl he’s several different characters and not much motivation to work with other than greed. Mr. Jenkins doesn’t seem to fill in the blanks left by the playwright and so there’s not much subtext going on, resulting in a disappointingly one-dimensional character. He, of course, sounds great, does a terrific Italian accent, is appropriately scary when needed, and certainly knows his way around a stage. In the context of this script, I really don’t think most of the audience is asking for any more than that.
Mike Talman, also a pseudonym, is played by Bryan Pitts, an impressive stage presence who gets to do most of the setting up of the con with Susy. Mr. Pitts plays the growing uneasiness with his role in the game with tell-tale glances and body language. Unfortunately, late in the play when Talman confesses to Susy what is actually happening, we never see his decision to make that confession, Pitt’s behavior remaining the same as before. That’s a real shame, as in showing what it costs his character to do that, Mr. Pitts would have turned in a more complete, affecting characterization.
Sgt. Carlino is the other half of the con team and Seth Johnston works his character’s loud, bumbling, not-too-bright personality for all it’s worth. Johnston’s large physical presence and clear vocal work helps establish his character immediately. He never wavers in his approach to the role, keeping the objective clear and the stakes in sight.
Kendall Tubbs plays Gloria, the pouty little girl in the upstairs apartment who befriends Susy and runs errands for her. At thirteen years old, Miss Tubbs is very believable as a much younger child without “acting” childish, and generally creates an interesting off-beat character thanks to the script. However, when it comes time for a big reveal, it doesn’t cost Gloria anything and is played as just another action rather than the important moment it should be. Miss Tubbs does manage to show Gloria’s gradual excitement about being part of Susy’s plan by becoming more animated and physical.
Ian Mead Moore in the role of Susy’s husband Sam, has little time on stage to establish who he is and his relationship with his wife. Mr. Moore does what he can with the role but despite some physical contact, a real emotional connection between the actors somehow just never happens. Carlos Iruegas and Brett Johnson make a brief appearance as policemen and are convincing in their short time on stage.
I had forgotten how incredibly filled with technical traps this script is. Window blinds and shades that must work without a hitch, props and furniture that have to be exactly placed, sound cues that are crucial and light cues that play a huge role are only some of the challenging obstacles. I remember seeing a copy of the published script years ago, filled with detailed instructions and illustrations for effects, lighting and doll requirements, and thinking at the time that any theater taking this show on is asking for trouble. Fortunately, most of the effects and cues for this production worked on opening night. The red light over the photography bench went off unexpectedly and then later came back on again for no reason and both the shade and the blinds were a problem at one point, but the audience was so caught up in the story it didn’t matter much.
The location against which this tense and engrossing story unfolds is designed by Rodney Dobbs with his usual fine eye for detail to capture environment and place. The set works well in showing us Sam and Susy’s basement apartment, and by using a strange gray-green wall color, it establishes a rather sinister atmosphere without over doing it. I am always amazed at the fine use of the small stage space at CTD and this set is certainly no exception.
Possible spoiler alert here! The light from the refrigerator is crucial at the end of the play when the play’s title comes to fruition. The placement of the light path from the open refrigerator door is absolutely essential to the audience’s involvement and the dramatic impact of the climax of the play. Here, the refrigerator is placed against the back wall of the set and when opened, instead of lighting the action, it shines in the audience’s eyes so that what’s happening on stage goes largely unseen. Opening night’s audience gasped and seemed caught up in what could be seen and heard, but I felt a large part of the impact had been lost by seeing so little at that point.
Props by Jen Gilson-Giliam, including photography equipment, knives, kitchen utensils, etc., work as believable to the setting and appropriate to the unfolding events. Fight Director Ashley H. White stages a few skirmishes effectively and the crucial confrontation at the end of the show seems effective from what I was able to see of it.
Lighting the show is a major part of the total effect and Lighting Designer Kenneth Farnsworth does a fine job illuminating and establishing atmosphere and mood. The scenes are appropriately bright or bathed in sinister shadows. Opening night lighting cues were occasionally a bit off and scene changes longer than necessary, but those can be perfected easily. Sound design choices by Rich Frohlich are outstanding, his somewhat noir-ish underscoring effective without becoming obtrusive. I particularly like the pre-show music and the sound effects work well throughout the play.
Costumes by Rhonda Gorman are not from any particular time period that I could establish, but work well enough generically. Dark, neutral colors for the men, appropriate clothing to distinguish Roat’s disguises and a simple young girl’s dress for Gloria helped establish each character. I especially liked the red of Susy’s sweater against the general bleakness of the basement space and other characters clothing.
Opening night’s audience, evidently unaware of the unfolding plotline, was totally involved throughout the evening and audible gasps and reactions gave evidence of their enjoyment. The play does build nicely and tightens the terror and suspense steadily. This is in no doubt due to the diligent work of Director Sharon Benge. She has taken a script filled with technical pitfalls and put together a tight show that mostly works. I wish Ms. Benge had spent more time with her actors working on plot beats and transitions, clarifying the decisions being made by the characters so they’re not simply ciphers in a melodrama, and giving a more human dimension to the story.
In all, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ Wait Until Dark is a well-presented, engrossing production, and once past the necessary exposition of the opening scene, moves smoothly into a suspenseful and finally terror-filled climax. Audience members who don’t know the plot and didn’t see the film back in the ‘60s will be swept up and carried along for an enjoyable evening of thrills and chills. If no one is going to save you from the darkness and the “beast about to strike,” you’ve got to do it for yourself, just like our plucky heroine. You’ll be pulling for her all the way.
Contemporary Theater of Dallas
5601 Sears St.
Dallas, TX 75206
Runs through September 7th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $40.00 on the main floor and $35.00 in the balcony. Seniors receive a $5.00 discount.
For information and tickets, go to www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com or call the box office at 214-828-0094.