"WAIT UNTIL DARK," through Nov. 17, Hale Centre Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy (801-984-9000 or hct.org); running time: 2 hours (one intermission)
SANDY — There are a few long-held pop culture taboos: Don't cover songs popularized by Barbra Streisand. Don't wear Cher's old clothes. And don't step into roles that were once inhabited by Audrey Hepburn. ("My Fair Lady" doesn't count — that was a Julie Andrews role first.)
Hale Centre Theatre's staging of Hepburn's 1967 thriller, "Wait Until Dark," running through Nov. 17, boldly dares to break that third taboo. Happily for them and the audience, they largely succeed.
The Monday night performance opened on a bright, cozy, well-lit New York apartment, full of mid-century comforts and warm colors that looked as hip now as they would have in the play's 1960s setting. The apartment is the home of Susy and Sam Hendrix, a young couple as hip as their decor — he's a photographer and she is well-dressed — but it soon becomes clear that their happy home will shortly be disturbed.
"Wait Until Dark" is a slow-burn thriller. It isn't jam-packed with jumps and scares — the play's biggest thrills come in the final 10 minutes — but that doesn't make the play's building tension any less enjoyable. In fact, for all that the final scene will make you gasp with some good old gotcha moments, the play is less of an action thriller and more of a psychological thriller. Susy, expertly played by Riley Branning (Monday/Wednesday/Friday with Elise Pearce on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday), is recently blind due to an auto accident, and it is through her vulnerabilities that the audience experiences the terrors of the story.
That story is this: A mysterious woman gave Sam (Jacob Theo Squire on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Marshall R. Madsen Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday) a doll at the airport, asking him to take it to a child in a hospital. (If "Wait Until Dark" has no other lesson it is to avoid taking items from strangers at airports.) When she unexpectedly shows up at the apartment to collect the doll later that night, Sam can't find it. As far as Sam and Susy are concerned, the issue is over when the mysterious woman leaves. What they don't know is that the doll is packed with almost two pounds of heroin and the mysterious woman is a criminal with even worse criminal friends.
The audience never meets the mysterious woman, but they do meet those criminal friends: Harry Roat, Mike Talman and Carlino. (Lonzo Liggins and Zac Zumbrunnen, respectively on Monday/Wednesday/ Friday, with Greg Hansen and M. Chase Grant on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday.) Harry, played with hot menace by Benjamin J. Henderson (single cast), hires Mike and Carlino to con Susy into giving back the doll, thus setting in motion an elaborate con game that slowly unravels as Susy becomes aware of the dangerous men moving through her apartment.
Branning cleverly uses Susy's frustrations with her visual impairment as a way to reveal her vulnerabilities, both physical and emotional. Her Susy is smart and resourceful, but not a superwoman, and watching her move tentatively around her apartment, reaching for objects and using her foot to find steps allows the audience to imagine their own weaknesses. And even more impactful is seeing dangers that Susy cannot — this is where that psychological drama comes in. Most of us have fears of things we can't see but suspect are there, and in Susy's case, the audience can actually see her real-life horrors. The criminals are ghosts and monsters made real, and even though she can't see them, Susy can feel them close by, waiting to hurt her.2 comments on this story
Sound designer Dan Morgan's effects — like thumping rain and the shrilly ringing phone — and lighting designer Danna Barney's lights (or lack of light) heightened Susy's and the audience's terrors in this tight, slick production. Young Bridget Maxwell (Monday/Wednesday/Friday with Mila Belle Howells on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday) as the neighbor Gloria also added an important support for Susy, giving the audience further anxiety: What can these two unarmed people to do against a ruthless criminal?
"Wait Until Dark" isn't the typical ghouls and ghosts type of scare some may want heading into the Halloween season, but the fears it taps into are often more frightening. It's a play that teaches a horrifying truth: Just because we can't see the danger doesn't mean it's not there.
Content advisory: "Wait Until Dark" contains thrills and shocks that would likely be too intense for young theater patrons.