The Maui OnStage production of “Wait Until Dark” at the historic Iao Theater is directed by Dale Button, who was in the midst of a tech rehearsals when I met him and his cast. It was amusing to witness firsthand the cheerful camaraderie in view. The play is intense and blood curdling but the actors were all cheerful and chummy, clearly relishing the material and the family of artists in collaboration that working in theater creates.
The play stars Lin McEwan as Susy Hendrix, a blind woman who is terrorized in her apartment by three thugs, who talk their way into her home and attempt to deceive her into giving them a much sought after doll. Once Susy realizes she’s been conned, she turns the tables on her tormentors.
Kalani Whitford plays Harry Roat Jr. “from Scarsdale,” the sinister leader of the trio that terrorizes Susy. Jim Oxborrow plays Sam, Susy’s husband, the lone sympathetic male in the play. Aiayana Grimes plays Gloria, Susy’s neighbor and only unlikely ally. Roat’s partners in crime, Mike Tallman and Carlino, are played by Francis Tau’a and William Hubbard. Rounding out the small but talented cast are Daniel Vicars and Jeff Brackett, playing a pair of cops who figure in the pivotal final moments.
The Comedy Director Tackles Horror
Button is chipper, smiles easily and has a sing-songy quality in his voice…which makes him an unlikely choice to direct a thriller. He described what it was like when asked to helm the piece:
“I did ‘Run for your Wife’, a British comedy, some people said it was the funniest show they’ve ever seen. And’ You Can’t Take It With You’, which was also a comedy. This one, they asked and I was like, really, a suspense thriller? You think I could do this? They said, ‘It’s like comedy, but with a different outcome’. Oh, okay! ”
” We have a stellar cast. The ten year old girl is the price of the admission. She’s phenomenal. A real pro. She takes direction, she changes it. She makes it work. You give her the motivation, she goes with it. That’s how it was with all of them.”
The ten-year old he’s referring to is professional scene stealer Grimes. She plays Gloria, a pivotal character whose initially bratty demeanor changes as the story progresses.
“I really like this cast,” said Grimes, “It’s very exciting being in such an intense play and really surprising when all that action is going on. Dale is really nice and I’ve been in a couple plays with him. He’s really fun to hang out with. If I ever direct, I want to be like Dale.”
McEwan, who makes her first time appearance on the Maui stage, took unique measures in playing a blind woman. “Once we started, it took a little time.” She said, “I watched Pacino in ‘Scent of a Woman’ and ‘Butterflies are Free’, to see what worked and what didn’t. I thought what worked on stage was keeping my eyes low, to see what the lighting did. I wasn’t going to do it with my eyes shut. My process has been where my body goes. I walked around my apartment with my eyes shut, a space that I know very well, what your instincts are when you move around. Keeping my eyes out of focus. There are moments when I don’t know what’s going on the stage around me.”
On helping shape McEwan’s performance, Button offered, “How do you teach someone to be blind? Most of it came from Lin. Hands out, how do you feel for a wall? We created movement patterns for her. Lots of small things: don’t move your head so much, you’ll look normal. Far as I know, blind people don’t move their head so much, because there’s nothing to see. Don’t face people directly. Little things, that we kept changing and working. She’s amazing. It’s ama-zing.”
Grimes had insight into the process, having playing a blind girl in “The Miracle Worker”: “It was difficult playing a blind child and when we were practicing, we wouldn’t close our eyes, so we could get the feel of it. I sort of stared out into the distance and not make eye contact at any cost. It’s cool how Lin can play a blind woman.”
“Dale’s been a fantastic coach.” said McEwan. “He’s been wonderful guiding me through this.” Whitford added, “Lin is great, it was hard doing scenes without making eye contact.”
A Wild Journey to Maui
When asked about her acting experience prior to “Wait Until Dark,” McEwan revealed a colorful, unusual past with lots of unexpected, creative interludes: “I was a theater major in college and a writing major. I tried to make it in New York as a singer. My voice is very low but I look very ingénue-ish. I had two things written for me, but it was tough getting me cast because I’m a contralto. I concentrated on being a singer, but once I got kind of jaded by the business, I took time off, then settled in the Virgin Islands for a year and a half.
Says McEwan, “I did something in the community theater there: ‘Proof.’ I loved it. I also did ‘Marat Sade’, playing a narcoleptic patient in an insane asylum, playing an assassin within the context of the play. Being chased around and raped on stage. That was crazy, just crazy but a lot of fun. I thought of myself of a singer…then this happened.”
Those Bloodcurdling Last Scenes…
Button was careful not to reveal any of his plans for staging the final scenes but made it clear, in his playful way, that the staging will maximize ways to frighten his audience. “The roller coaster ride is the very end”, says Button, “when it’s just her and him. There’s so much I can’t give away. There’s surprises all the way down the line. It’s relatively close to the movie, which I saw a long, long time ago.”
Button adds, “I changed the ending, slightly. I won’t give it away. I’d do something, someone in the cast would say, ‘that creeped me out’. I’d say, ‘good, it’s supposed to’. Most of the show is about relationships and a power shift. It all revolves around the blind lady and the relationships she has with different people. I can’t give that away either… Bloody hell!”
The Rehearsal Process
Apparently, the merry tone that permeated through the theater began at the audition. Says Button, “That was one of the most fun auditions, ever. ‘Girls, what kind of a tantrum can you throw?’ Say, ‘I did not steal,’ any way you like and throw silverware on the floor.”
Grimes adds, “I really enjoyed it, actually. The scene where I throw stuff.”
Button noticed how, on occasion, the material would take a toll on the cast. “I saw Francis hold his shoulders a certain way during rehearsal,” said Button. “I asked him, ‘Francis, are you okay, are you tense?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re in so much trouble to be involved with this guy and we can’t get out of this.'”
What Scares You?
When I asked McEwan about the topic of fear, she revealed: “I was completely terrorized by movies I’d watch with my grandfather that came on cable access. We were watching something innocuous, like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. He fell asleep, then ‘Helter Skelter’ came on. The movie about Charles Manson. I was 8 and I didn’t sleep for a week and a half. I was utterly terrified.”
Someone who dove head first into the darkness of the play is Whitford: “I looked into sociopaths and psychopaths.” He said, “I did a lot of research into that, what makes them tick, what causes that. It was really fascinating and helpful, because that’s what he is. He has no empathy or remorse. He’s very cut and dry. I found that really interesting.”
I love playing villains,” says Whitford, “I never thought I’d play the Wicked Witch of the West, Then I did it three years ago for Pro Arts. I saw the movie of ‘Wait Until Dark’ years and years ago. I remembered Roat and it was always in the back of my head, as maybe a part I could someday play. When Dale cast me, I was completely shocked. Villains to me are always fun.”
When asked if they would warn friends and family about the intense nature of the play, Grimes said, “I’ve warned a few of them.” Whitford added, “I’m telling my Mom to come prepared.”
I asked a few cast members about what scared them in general, and a few admitted to be afraid of the dark at different times in their lives.
Button, on the other hand, had this creepy dream to share with me:
“There was a recurring nightmare I had when we lived in California. The driveway was slightly lower than the bedroom window, where I was. I’d hear these feet walking in the gravel, crunch, crunch, crunch. I would up at the window and see the feet stop at the bedroom window. I’d see the knees hit the ground and I’d close my eyes…because I knew, whoever was there, was going to look in the window, see me and know I was there.
Then I would hear them walk to the back of the house, the screen door would open, the kitchen would open…I would crawl underneath my brother’s bed, into the corner of the wall.
I would hear the person walk into the room, I’d see their feet coming…I’d see their knees hit down, I’d see their hands reach under the bed…then I’d wake up screaming.”
Button, who clearly knows how to scare someone, concluded my interview with this thought. “The darkness brings the audience into her world. At points, it will be completely black, putting you entirely in her world. It becomes an auditory show. That’s part of the fun. Let’s take you somewhere you’ve never been before. It sends shivers up your spine,” he caps with a gleeful laugh.
Wait Until Dark runs from September 26th-October 5th at the Iao Theater. Call 808.242.6969 or go to mauistage.com for tickets.