Anyone who’s seen the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark vividly recalls the terror they felt for Audrey Hepburn as she fought for her life in the nail-biting final scene. In fact, the whole point of the film, and the play that preceded it, is to scare the daylights out of us.
Though it has wonderful moments, Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark doesn’t quite achieve that goal.
Frederick Knott’s plot involves a heroin-filled doll that makes its way into the life of blind New York housewife Susy Hendrix (Katie Pavao). Her husband, Sam (Gregg Aratin), has innocently brought the doll from Canada as a favor to a woman who turns up dead early in the play. Three bad guys—Harry Roat (Hal O’Connell), Mike Talman (Stephen McMillen) and Sgt. Carlino (Florentino Carrillo)—try to make Susy believe that her husband will be suspected of the murder, and the only way to protect him is to hand over the coveted doll. The drug-filled toy is actually in the hands of the little girl upstairs, Gloria (Vienna Lima and Scarlett Goodlander, alternating performances), who has stolen it after discovering it’s not a gift for her.
I won’t give away much more of the story, to protect those who have not seen the film, but it involves cops who aren’t really cops, phone booths (remember those?), the reappearance of the doll, knives, gasoline and lots of action on a stage plunged into total darkness.
The pivotal role in this play is that of Susy, and thankfully, director Lance Phillips-Martinez has cast the terrific Katie Pavao. Playing a blind person onstage requires great skill, and Pavao has it. Her eyes never actually focus directly on another character’s face, but she does not look too far to the side or too high—a common mistake by amateurs, who can come across as phony. Attractive, charismatic and endearing, Pavao makes us root for Susy from her first appearance to the final curtain. A touch of feistiness balances the vulnerability that comes with a lack of sight.
Though he has a nice stage presence, Hal O’Connell’s Roat doesn’t come across as truly menacing until the very end of the play; this is one of the main reasons the production lacks a consistent feeling of tension and suspense. The same goes for McMillen and Carrillo. They are the right types physically, and McMillen has some nice moments as he and Susy start to feel sympathy for each other, but as bad guys, they are just not quite scary enough.
Gregg Aratin does a nice job as Susy’s loving husband, who doesn’t coddle his wife because of her disability. Vienna Lima, who played the doll-pilfering Gloria in the opening-night performance, is appropriately bratty (and occasionally helpful).
Ron Phillips-Martinez re-creates a Greenwich Village basement apartment nicely, and the sound effects are fine. Lights—and a lack of them—are crucial in this production, and Andy Cavalletto is up to the challenge. The pitch-black final confrontation between Susy and Roat finally gives the audience the thrill for which they’ve been waiting.
The 1967 film version—featuring Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Jack Weston, as well as Hepburn—had the advantage of a score by Henry Mancini. Perhaps a more liberal use of music throughout the play would heighten the dramatic tension. (Imagine Jaws or Psycho without the soundtrack.) That, as well as a slight quickening of the pace here and there, and more sinister villains, would raise this production of Wait Until Dark to the edge-of-your-seat level at which it should be.
Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, May 17, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.