Who’s afraid?

Wait Until Dark

We don’t know <i>what</i> this is, but … yikes!

We don’t know what this is, but … yikes!

Rated 4.0

We get our share of whodunits on local stages—cozy little murder mysteries with actors sporting synthetic accents and perhaps a bit of fake hair as part of a disguise. Most whodunits are games of detective work and identity, as the audience is invited to figure out who among the dwindling cast of characters is behind the dastardly deed(s).

But we don’t often see a thriller—and there is a difference. In a thriller, the identity of the culprit becomes clear early on, often during the first few scenes. The question is whether or not the hero will figure things out in time and survive to tell the tale. The point is not so much to amuse as to scare the living daylights out of the audience.

That’s no easy task onstage. A sense of menace, desperation and tangible, physical danger can all be very difficult to sustain with actors performing before a live audience. That can be the case whether you’re talking a classic like Macbeth or a thriller in the modern sense, like Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark—a classic of its kind written in 1966 and currently being produced by the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City.

The story has several standard components, including a doll containing contraband, and a trio of thugs determined to recover it. Knott’s twist is that his heroine is blind—an element that is carefully woven through scene after scene, producing some surprises along the way.

Carolyn Howarth—a Foothill regular who typically excels in physical comedy—plays the heroine in convincing and sympathetic style. She’s opposite Frederick Snyder, a recent graduate of UC Davis who was a standout as Mephistopheles in a campus production of Doctor Faustus earlier this year. Snyder plays another diabolical character in this show—clearly, he’s very good at this sort of thing—using a withering gaze, a faint quaver in his voice, and his prematurely balding head to create a genuinely creepy character.

Philip Charles Sneed and Heath Kelts are well cast as two small-time con men who get caught up in the story. Ariana Rampy, a high-school freshman in real life, is also good playing the smart, curious teenager who lives upstairs.

Director Gary Wright knows what he’s about and ratchets up the suspense notch by notch, never making a wrong move along the way. Michael Palumbo’s set (with its telltale windows and fateful doors) and Chris Christensen’s mood-enhancing sound design reinforce the effort. (There’s none of the artificial British cheesiness you get from so many productions of whodunits.)

Wait Until Dark may not be a literary feast—thrillers aren’t “high class” in that regard—but it’s a tightly written play, handled quite effectively in this production. And it’s scary. The final scenes will stay with you for quite a while after you leave the theater.