Friday, October 9, 2009

Faulkner "Wait Until Dark"

"Wait Until Dark", English playwright Frederick Knott's 1966 spine-tingling suspense drama, is currently playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre. Best known for the 1967 film starring Audrey Hepburn as a recently blind woman being terrorized by a trio of thugs who are after some heroin hidden in a doll that was brought home from a business trip by her unsuspecting husband, its jump-out-of-your-seat ending is a classic moment in film history. Knott had written "Dial M for Murder" in the 1950s, and combined with the impact of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), had set the standard for the genre; Americans delighted in being scared then, and the momentum of such entertainment fare has not slowed down.

The major challenges of this and similar plays are to avoid melodramatic interpretation, which director Angela Dickson's cast does very well, and to sustain the cat-and-mouse tension throughout its two acts, which is not so successful. Complicated plot contrivances notwithstanding, the action needs to move purposefully from point to point with careful attention to the slow and fast rhythms inherent in such maneuverings. As it is, the slow steady pace of both the dialogue and the actors' movement had little variety, and there were a number of silent moments that drew attention to themselves, resulting in an over-long almost two-and-a-half-hour production that could not frighten us as intended.

Jason Clark South's 1960s period Greenwich Village basement apartment setting provides many authentic details, from a formica dining table to a rotary phone to a photographic darkroom with an enlarger, red-light, and other materials that would be totally unfamiliar to many people today. It's too bad that the Faulkner stage is so wide; filling its breadth with a set lessens the claustrophobic feeling that Knott's script suggests. And with a script that relies on lighting -- and pitch-darkness -- it is too bad that there were a number of glitches here that illuminated too much of the stage at moments when darkness should have prevailed.

As the two small-time con men, Michael Morrow and Tony Davidson bring significant sinister aspects to their roles, occasionally breaking the tension with off-hand remarks that draw smiles if not laughs. Morrow is particularly adept at appearing concerned for his victim's well-being, though this ruse is eventually seen through by Jaynie Casserly as the blind Suzy Hendricks. And Davidson's portrayal is effectively sly and a bit bumbling. They are a good pair who just need to bring up the energy to keep us engaged in their pretenses.

Rebekah Goldman plays the teenaged neighbor Gloria, whose petulance and whining give way to concerned helpfullness.

Jason Peregoy plays Suzy's husband Sam with conviction. The couple's scenes together provide some domestic stability and appear natural enough to warrant our concern.

Chris Kelly, wearing an arm sling just one night after an injury during a performance of the play, does yeoman's work in taking the stage at all; and he creates an evil character whose duplicity and paranoia are very real threats. Occasionally overusing an almost comic-book laugh verges on the ridiculous, but Kelly rescues his character from it by his persistence in the performance.

Casserly is utterly convincing as a blind woman. The set of her eyes, the stiffness of her walk, the tentative searching with her hands, and the subtle adjustments of her head and face reflect a blind person's compensating for the loss of sight. A vivacious actor, Casserly imbues her role with a mixture of innocence and strength; as she figures out her dangerous predicament and takes matters into her own hands, she subtly demonstrates the character's independence and assurance.

The big question is: Do we care? -- Though there is sufficient text to achieve this, and the actors appear to know their characters, the deliberate slow pace and lengthy pauses can't sustain our emotional engagement in Suzy's predicament.