Saturday, September 3, 2011

Darkling Texture

Frederick Knott happily admitted that he wrote plays for only one reason: money. He succeeded. His thrillers Dial M for Murder (1952) and Wait until Dark (1966) have delighted audiences for decades. Countless regional, collegiate, and community theaters have staged these gems of suspense, even if critics have sniffed at their highly contrived plots.

Vagabond Players' revival of Wait Until Dark maintains all the chills of the thriller. The climax of the play is still the end of the second act, when the blind housewife Susy (April Rejman) confronts the drug criminal Roat (Christopher Cahill) in an apartment where all sources of light have been extinguished. Even when we've seen the play (or the classy Audrey Hepburn film version) a hundred times before, we anxiously follow the pitch dark fight ingeniously tilted in favor of the blind housewife. The gripping climax is only the most exciting moment in Allan Herlinger's surefooted direction of the piece, in which the atmosphere of menace is carefully intensified as the action progresses.

The Vagabond's production offers more than the predictable thrills. The director and cast have drawn out the dark humor of the piece. This is especially striking in Cahill's performance as Roat, the murderous drug dealer. There is more than a touch of Richard III in Cahill savoring every violent moment as he kills his two criminal colleagues (played by Leonard Gilbert and Torbeg Tonnessen) and launches his assault on Susy.

The direction also brings out the psychological darkness of the characters. For all the fun-and-games of the climactic struggle in the dark---Did she just throw acid in his face? Will someone please shut that refrigerator door!---the most impressive part of the scene is its treatment of Roat's sadism. Wanting more than the heroin stuffed into a doll hidden in the apartment, Roat's humiliation of Suzy digs deeply into the theater of cruelty. The direction also effectively evokes the violence in the tense relationship between Suzy and the disturbed girl Gloria (Isabelle Anna Herlinger), a pesky neighbor. Suzy's reliance on the mercurial Gloria to help save her becomes a stark act of faith in an unpromising savior.

Enhancing the psychological darkness of the piece is the claustrophobic set designed by Bill Price. Painted in various tones of gray and black, the apartment and its furniture signal the threats, depression, and despair hovering over the play's action. Even before curtain rise (in a theater without curtains), the menacing mood of the evening is established.

Vagabond's production of Wait Until Dark provides all the thrills one could expect in this warhorse thriller. Its acidic wit and nocturnal psychology add something more.

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