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Lights out! - 'Wait Until Dark'

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Lights out! - 'Wait Until Dark' (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – There’s something sinister slinking through the city’s shadows this season.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production is “Wait Until Dark,” the classic 1966 thriller by playwright Frederick Knott. The show – a new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by PTC mainstay Tricia Hobbs – runs through November 4 at the Bangor Opera House.

Some may be familiar with the 1967 film version that starred Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, among others, while local audiences with long memories might also remember the PTC production of Knott’s original back in 1998. It’s a tense, taut thriller that pits a group of hardened criminals against a blind woman who they believe has something they want … but there’s a lot more to the mystery.

(Note: I played a small part in that 1998 production – so small that it didn’t make the cut for this new adaptation.)

The year is 1944. A couple lives in a basement apartment in New York City. Susan Hendrix (Liz Mills) was blinded in a car accident less than two years ago. Her husband Sam (John Hedges) is a WWII veteran who now works as a photographer. The two met in the hospital as they recovered from their respective ordeals – she from the trauma of her accident, he from the trauma of his time overseas. Their relationship is built on their reliance upon one another.

But there’s more to the story. There are men looking for something – and they’ll stop at nothing to find it. Sergeant Carlino (Ben Layman) is a thuggish con man posing as a police officer. And Roat (Brad LaBree), well … Roat is something more. He’s a stone-cold killer and psychopath, one willing to commit any number of offenses to get what he wants. And what does he want?

Apparently, a doll. A very special doll.

As Roat and Carlino engage in their shark-like circling – which includes an elaborate scheme to get Sam out of the apartment for an hours-long stretch - Susan is at their mercy. She does have allies, however – there’s Gloria (Gwyneth Ravenscraft), the little girl upstairs who is either a pain in the ass or an able assistant depending on her mood. And there’s Mike (Michael Marotta), an old military biddy of Sam’s who is looking to reconnect with his friend.

It’s going to take every ounce of will and every drop of courage for Susan to overcome the sinister forces massing against her. But if she’s going to survive, she’s going to have to find a way to shine a light on the darkness that’s surrounding her. And she can’t afford to wait.

In a lot of ways, “Wait Until Dark” is the consummate stage thriller. A seemingly-helpless heroine left to her own devices against ruthless criminals who prove capable of both elaborate plots and violent brutality in the pursuit of their aims – classic. And this new adaptation by Hatcher manages to lend the script currency while actually moving it backward in time; Knott’s script is a bit dated, but this one streamlines things.

Of course, none of it matters without a steady hand at the helm. Hobbs has worked for Penobscot Theatre Company for years in a variety of roles, including scenic designer – she designed this set, in fact – but this is her debut in the PTC directorial chair. And it is an auspicious one. She has clearly turned her designer’s eye onto this script, creating a range of compelling stage pictures that are both intricate and organic. She has honed the already-sharp script into something with a wicked edge; there are some legitimately breathtaking moments.

And it’s the ensemble doing everything necessary to take that breath away. Liz Mills is taking an inaugural bow of her own on the PTC stage … and it’s a phenomenal turn. It’s a magnetic performance. Playing blind is awfully difficult, but she conveys Susan’s sightlessness effortlessly. It is compelling work; we can likely expect more from Mills going forward. The always-excellent Brad LaBree clears even the high bar his previous work has set for him; it is a transformative take. He endows Roat with an unsteady sharpness that he unleashes at will, the anthropomorphic representation of his own ever-present switchblade. Ben Layman plays Carlino with a lumbering gruffness unlike what we usually see from the actor; it’s a welcome departure, giving the talented performer a chance to bring an altogether new energy to the stage. Marotta’s Mike is ramrod straight, moving with a steel spine and creased-khaki bearing. It’s a delicate dance, but Marotta nails the steps. Young Gwyneth Ravenscraft holds her own on-stage with a group of talented veterans – no easy feat for such a performer of her age and experience. And John Hedges makes the most of his relatively brief time, finding chemistry in his interactions with Susan despite limited opportunity.

As mentioned before, Hobbs does double duty – her set design is yet another triumph, a wonderfully intricate recreation of a basement apartment that blends form and function beautifully. This is a show that demands a lot of its set, but Hobbs’s design is up to the task. Scout Hough does wonders with her lighting design; this show demands a strong grasp of the power of darkness, and Hough has demonstrated her understanding of the interplay between light and shadow on numerous occasions. It’s some of her best work. Kevin Koski’s costume design is evocative in all the right ways. Sean McGinley’s sound design and the prop design of Belinda Hobbs round out yet another beautifully-produced PTC show.

“Wait Until Dark” is the best kind of show for this time of year. Aesthetically ambitious and exquisitely performed, it’s a magnificent thriller that will leave audiences gasping – particularly at the heart-pounding finale. This darkness is well worth the wait.

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 October 2018 18:16

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