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“Wait Until Dark” at Spreckels in Rohnert Park

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Review – “Wait Until Dark” at Spreckels in Rohnert Park – by Harry Duke

The mystery and suspense “thriller” may be one of the most difficult types of play to produce successfully. Films have the advantage of editing to maintain suspense - quick cuts, close-ups, etc. and the added enhancement of musical scores to manipulate your feelings. Even the most talented of casts and tautest of scripts has to work against the innate artificiality of theatre – sets that end, lights that hang, and the occasional distractive behavior of an audience. Building and maintaining suspense in a theatrical production is an uphill battle to be sure. It’s a battle (mostly) won by the Spreckels Theatre Company with their current production of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark. Knott (also the writer of Dial M for Murder) provides the taut script. David L. Yen provides the talented cast. Together they provide the audience with an entertaining and suspenseful evening of theatre – with at least one genuine jolt (for those unfamiliar with the play or subsequent film.)

Set in the 1960’s (the time of its writing) and occasionally showing its age, Wait Until Dark takes place in the Greenwich Village apartment of Sam and Susy Hendrix. Susy (Denise Elia-Yen), recently blinded in an automobile accident, is doing her best to cope with her loss of sight, aided by her helpful, loving husband Sam (Don Clancy) and a bratty upstairs neighbor (Madigan Love.) Ah, but her husband’s helpful manner complicates things when, while on a trip, he responds to a desperate woman’s plight to transport a doll from Canada to a hospitalized child in New York. Might there be something in that doll?

Of course there is, and three con men (Erik Weiss, Chris Schloemp, Nicolas Christenson) are determined to retrieve it, first by the execution of an elaborate con, but ultimately by any means necessary. Suzy’s slow realization that things aren’t quite what they seem and that the men aren’t quite who they seem builds to an explosive and violent climax played (mostly) in the dark.

Madigan Love as Gloria and Denise Elia-Yen as Susy HendrixYen’s cast does an excellent job and all deliver strong characterizations. Weiss, as the criminal ringleader, exudes a smarmy sense of evil and ruthlessness. Christenson does well as the dim-bulb yet still menacing accomplice and provides some suspense-leavening humor. Schloemp has a nice character arc to play as he goes from a wily manipulator to one with a tinge of a conscience. Elia-Yen plays Susy as one still struggling to adapt to a world without sight. Sometimes angry at her plight and at those trying to help her, other times numb to the reality of her situation, she literally clings to the tangible. Unable to let go and trust in herself, she unwisely puts her trust in others and imperils herself and those around her. Ultimately, she breaks free from her physical and self-imposed limitations and is forced to rely on her wits rather than her senses. Elia-Yen’s commitment to her character’s challenges, noticeable even during scene changes, is commendable. 

The technical side of things is where this production occasionally, but far from fatally, falls a little short.  The set and prop design have some nice period details (a Pan Am travel bag, Coke in a bottle) that offset the occasional anachronism. A smoke machine used to simulate a burning cigarette was a bit noisy and produced an excessive amount of smoke that drew attention to itself and distracted from the situation. While it seems odd to credit lighting design (by Eddy Hansen) for enveloping the theatre in darkness, the absence of lighting is key to the climax of the show and well done.

Much is made of the character Suzy’s acute hearing, which makes the production’s sound issues the most problematic. Staged in the smaller Condiotti “Experimental” theatre, every backstage move, step or shift was telegraphed by the persistent creaking and groaning of platforms and stairs, frequently undercutting moments of suspense. A real effort to eliminate these tough-to-ignore aural distractions could only enhance the sense of tension and apprehension all the artists involved have diligently worked toward creating.

Even with a few technical issues working against it, Wait Until Dark succeeds in its goal. When’s the last time you sat with an audience and heard them gasp? Tight direction and strong acting come together to make for a thrilling evening of theatre.

Nicolas Christenson, Erik Weiss, Chris Schloemp

 

Wait Until Dark
Presented by The Spreckels Theatre Company  

through April 3

Fri/Sat @ 8pm, Sun@ 2pm
Thurs 03/31 @ 7:30pm, Sat 03/19 @ 2pm (no 8pm show)

Spreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
(707) 588-3400

www.spreckelsonline.com

Photos by Eric Chazankin

Harry Duke Theater reviews for the Sonoma County Gazette