Mention "Wait Until Dark," and most folks are apt to recall the 1967 film starring Audrey Hepburn as the blind but plucky Susy Hendrix and Alan Arkin-- best known to modern audiences for comic, fatherly roles as in Little Miss Sunshine-- as the sociopathic murderer, Harry Roat.
"Wait Until Dark" has been rated among the top 10 most suspenseful movies of all time and little of that edge-of-your-seat thrill is lost in the theatrical version, now playing at the Vagabond Players as "America's oldest continuously operating little theater" inaugurates its" 96th season.
Director Allan L. Herlinger notes that the villain, Roat, quotes a bit of an 18th century Oliver Goldsmith poem, "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." This seems quite appropriate, given the fact that Roat is, himself, a mad dog, but there's more to it than that.
The poem tells the tale of a "good man" with "kind and gentle heart" who befriends a dog. "But when a pique began, the dog, to gain some private ends, went mad, and bit the man." Though all thought the man would surely die of his wound, "the man recovered of the bite; the dog it was that died."
What might this mean? That those "mad dogs" who strike out to harm are bound to get their comeuppance? Or that that people aren't always what they seem? To be good, to "comfort friends and foes" as Goldsmith writes, does not mean to be weak.
These concepts are all at play in "Wait Until Dark." Consider April Rejman's stellar performance as the blind Susy, who, pressed by her husband, Sam (Colin McHugh), remarks that she must be the "world's champion blind lady"-her words prove true, shaking off the stereotype of the "poor, defenseless blind woman" to match wits with career con men Roat (Christopher Cahill), Mike (Leonard Gilbert) and Carlino (Torberg M. Tonnessen).
Rejman is convincing in her blindness, her sight not seeming to register anything about her, except the fear, and determination, she feels as she uncovers clues that Roat, Mike and "Detective Sergeant" Carlino aren't what they claim to be.
Susy's only ally is another character who is more than she seems--the little girl, Gloria, portrayed by 5th grader Isabelle Anna Herlinger. Susy must ultimately trust the volatile Gloria with several daunting-and dangerous-tasks which Gloria embraces with relish, exclaiming, "I wish things like this happened every day!"
Leonard Gilbert's con man Mike Talman changes his "book cover" as well. A recent parolee, Talman pretends to be an "old friend of Sam's" from his Army days. But even as he deceives Suzy, he comes to appreciate her character and intelligence. He is a dog, but not a mad one, for he refuses to "bite" when he has the chance.
Tonnessen's Sgt. Carlino is not the sharpest shank in cell yard, but plays his part well as he and his co-horts attempt to divine the location of a heroine-filled doll, believed to be somewhere in Suzie's apartment.
The apartment is another character in the play; director Herlinger describes it as a "claustrophobic box," that incorporate the "colors of shadow," and it is indeed everything is dark, the furniture, the kitchen, cabinets, all painted slate gray, even the refrigerator.
Cahill's Roat is similarly cloaked, wearing dark sunglasses, a black leather jacket, and a veneer of civility that belies just how terrible a figure he truly is. Cahill may be the "busiest" actor on stage, appearing as three characters, himself, the deranged Mr. Roat, Sr., and milquetoast Mr. Roat, Jr., as he and his accomplices attempt to con Suzy into believing Sam might be involved in an affair.
"Wait Until Dark" achieves its climax with the stage in almost complete darkness, raising tensions as we, like Suzy, cannot see what is happening, where her attacker might be, but it is not Suzy who is at a disadvantage, but the predator Roat, as once more, things are not quite as they seem.
"Wait Until Dark" continues its run at the Vagabond Players theater, 806 S. Broadway, now through Sept. 25th. Tickets are $16. For more information, visit www.vagabondplayers.org.