Lin McEwan make a sensational debut on the Maui stage as Susy Hendrix, a blind woman whose seemingly uneventful day alone in her apartment takes a sinister turn. What the audience knows, but Susy takes some time to discover, is that three criminals are staking out her home, in hopes of finding a much sought-after doll. Susy is unaware she possesses the doll, but the intruders, who bare little patience and growing tempers, will do anything to obtain it. The men are led by the cold, sinister Harry Roat Jr. (a stylish turn by Kalani Whitford). His two partners in crime are played by Francis Tau’a and William Hubbard, whose early scenes suggest a classic comedy duo. In fact, the entire first act, in which Susy is continuously harassed by the men in various forms of disguise, plays like a well oiled farce. I was taken aback by how funny it is, a nice contrast from how I remember the material.
It’s no small compliment that this stands apart from the iconic, still petrifying 1967 film of the same name. While Frederick Knott’s classic thriller has been a stage mainstay for decades, the Audrey Hepburn/Alan Arkin adaptation and horror staple is often cited as one of the scariest ever made. I frequently forgot about the movie while watching this stage incarnation, as the choices made are different and cleverly so.
The first thing I noticed about this Maui OnStage production, performed at the Iao Theater, is how beautiful the set design is. Steven Dascoulias has created an apartment that is spacious, vividly detailed and, somehow, becomes claustrophobic and prison-like over the course of the play.
McEwan has a striking voice and a presence as vibrant as the orange overcoat she wears in her introductory scene. She reaches all the emotional demands of the role but nails even the subtlest details of her character’s vulnerability. Watch her closely during the scene where she’s falsely informed about the death of a neighborhood woman. Its during moments like this where McEwan is especially touching, finding honesty and openness in a demanding characterization. I sincerely hope we see more of McEwan in Maui productions.
Playing one of the nastiest creations in theater, Whitford plays Roat as cunning and amusingly irritated. The condescending way he refers to his cronies as “children” is just right, as is the eerie way he can barely contain a smile at the mention of a person he murdered.
Tau’a, playing a role embodied by a forceful, masculine Richard Crenna in the movie, makes his Mike Tallman an endearing man-child. His insincere laugh is hilarious, as is the way Tallman fumbles through his character’s deception. I’ve never found the role more likeable, due entirely to the naturalistic and offbeat way Tau’a plays him. Hubbard is another standout, playing a rat only slightly more intelligent than Tallman. He makes his best lines sound off the cuff and entirely made up.
Ten year old Aiyana Grimes is a major scene stealer as Gloria, Susy’s irritating neighbor and unlikely ally. Grimes visibly relishes having the play’s funniest line, though her performance suggests the character’s thin skin and stubborn reserve in a way that’s mature and smartly considered. Sam, Susy’s husband, is a character frequently referenced but only partially seen. He’s played with warmth and believability by Jim Oxborrow.
Knott’s first scene is burdened by non-stop expositional dialogue, which Button’s careful staging and the cast’s firm grasp of their characters mostly transcends. Despite the mounting danger Susy is in, the cast earns hearty chuckles over how the ruse played against her is barely credible, carried out by somewhat inept criminals on thin ice. By the time we get to her rousing declaration of “I will not give you the doll,” which evoked female empowerment in the 60’s and still packs a punch, we root for Susy as she mentally and physically takes on her captors.
By the time we get to the climactic scenes, in which brilliant lighting designs convey what darkness is like for Susy and those in her apartment, all bets are off. The gripping nature of this sequence was enough to make my wife scream and jump more than once. Suspense and mounting dread are rarely this cleverly achieved on stage.
The strength of McEwan’s remarkable performance alone makes this essential. Fans of classic thrillers will find “Wait Until Dark” deceptively humorous at first. Just when you’re at ease with the character dynamics and involving narrative, the play, literally, grows darker, the lights go out and all the audience can do is hold onto their seats.
Wait Until Dark runs from September 26th-October 5th at the Iao Theater. Call 808.242.6969 or go to mauionstage.com for tickets.