Afraid of the dark?
Wait Until Dark
A common notion in show business is that the hardest thing to do is make an audience laugh. Maybe it’s because I laugh easily—even at things that aren’t supposed to be funny—but I’ve always disagreed with this school of thought. I believe that the most difficult thing for a performer to pull off is a good old-fashioned scare. I’m not talking about the cheap visual tricks of PG-13 horror movies; I’m talking about the slow burn of heightening tension and creeping dread, the kind a master like Hitchcock employed to wrap an audience around his little finger. This month, Reno Little Theater tries its hand at this tallest of orders with its production of Wait Until Dark.
The play is probably best known for its 1967 screen adaptation, a genre classic starring Audrey Hepburn as a terrorized blind woman and Alan Arkin as the sadistic architect of her peril. Though tempting, it would be a disservice to both RLT and the playwright to judge this local production by comparing it to the movie, so I’ll shelve that fruitless discussion in favor of taking the play at face value. The plot concerns Suzy, a young woman who recently lost her sight and has begun the arduous journey of becoming functional without it. By chance, she has become the custodian of an item of great interest to the villainous Harry Roat and a couple of mopes he enlists in his nefarious scheme. The action takes place in Suzy’s apartment while her husband is away and involves the three criminals engaging in an elaborate game of deception aimed at finding their quarry. Suzy’s only ally—though she doesn’t know it—is a young neighbor girl of questionable reliability.
As Suzy, Rachel Sliker is the play’s anchor, which is no easy task. The entire enterprise depends on the audience accepting Suzy’s blindness and sympathizing with her precarious situation. Sliker meets the challenge of playing blind, to the point where the audience is likely to take it for granted by Act II. As Roat, Doug A. Mishler is suitably slimy, though I’d have preferred less leering pulp villainy and more icy sociopathy. Dave Martens hits all the right notes as a kinder, gentler lowlife. However, the play’s most uncanny performance is that of Hannah Davis as the neighbor, Gloria. Davis is apparently a grown adult, but she’s got the chops and the physicality to fool you into thinking she’s an actual little girl.
As much as Wait Until Dark needs solid performances, its genre demands technical precision in order to strike suspenseful chords. Specifically, in a story that hinges on what its characters can and cannot see, lighting is thematically crucial and a lynchpin of the plot itself. For the most part, RLT’s light design works well to frame Suzy’s desperate circumstances, though things could be more tightly executed, especially during the climactic scene.
Each element of RLT’s production is capable, but the star of the show remains Frederick Knott’s brilliant source material. A touchstone of the suspense genre, Wait Until Dark still delivers a punch even after 40 years, and even after audiences have seen every plot twist in the book. I said I wouldn’t hold RLT to the standard of the film, and I won’t. Director Jim Martin is working with a different bag of tools than a studio film director, and while his production doesn’t ever reach the heights of sheer terror, it does a fine job of unfolding the classic script in a compelling way that should keep audiences rapt through every tense twist and turn.