posted by chicago pop
For anyone who lived in Hyde Park at any point during the last century, the Court Theater's current production of Frederick Knott's Broadway thriller Wait Until Dark may seem strangely familiar. Con-men and break-ins to seedy rental apartments, why set a play with these elements in 1960's Greenwich Village? Woodlawn and 53th Street circa 1987 would have done just as nicely.
In fact, minus two dead bodies in the bedroom and slightly more bohemian neighbors, the two locations might have been interchangeable.
So seeing Wait Until Dark at Ellis and 55th produces mixed sensations of recognition and artifice: this is a familiar tale of mistrust and fragile human connection in an unstable urban environment, a tale of much of inner-city America throughout the postwar period.
And yet the tropes of film noir and theatrical suspense seem to require settings and character types that aren't associated with Chicago's real-life noir: down-and-out screenwriters in Hollywood or fashion photographers in the Naked City. So the neighborhood viewer may bring her own uncatalogued noir recollections to the theater, and experience their eerie reenactment in a different geography and a slightly conventionalized world.
Knott's play is a piece of theatrical craftsmanship, its plot as intricately designed as the cramped set on which it is performed. A chipper, extremely intelligent, and blind housewife is married to a man whose ability to manipulate vision --as a fashion photographer -- is his livelihood, in what might strike some as an improbably virtuous domestic union. As a favor to a stranger, the husband serves as a "mule" and transports a doll full of heroin back to New York where it is to be innocently delivered to its owner.
That doesn't work out, and Susy Hendrix, the blind housewife, is left alone in the apartment with the doll while a small-time hood, Roat, schemes to intercept it with the help of two affable con-men.
To emphasize Susy's defenselessness, and to amplify our anxiety on her behalf, the first characters to enter the stage, and her apartment, are the two con-men, followed by Roat, who decides that the trio are going to use their wits rather than violence to retrieve the doll. So begins the play-within-a-play, in which the audience from the beginning knows more and can see more than the heroine, who by dint of her charm and intelligence must maneuver herself out of her trap.
I can't recall being as frightened by the action in a theater piece as I was by the climax of Wait Until Dark, which fans of modern psychological thrillers such as Silence of the Lambs must recognize as a significant precedent in terms of technique (a woman and her tormentor trapped in the dark) and effect (terror). Certain advantages of a stage production, such as total control of light and sound, make the physical reality of blindness -- which Susy uses to her strategic advantage throughout the play -- more visceral than is possible on film, making the production worthwhile even for those acquainted with the 1967 screen adaptation.
The cast are all new to the Court. Norm Boucher and Aaron Todd Douglas lend appropriate physical heft -- while remaining likable -- to characters who carry switch blades and brass knuckles, while John Hoogenakker as the sadistic dandy Roat is far more menacing despite his slender frame. Emjoy Gavino as Susy is as remarkable in her physical understanding of blindness as for her ability to make such an extraordinarily intelligent "housewife" as Susy persuasive. Erin and Molly Hernandez share in their portrayal of Gloria, the 9 year old neighbor girl who delivers clever and well-timed comic relief.
The drama is ultimately a contest of wits between Roat and Susy, played out through a set of intermediaries, until the two must finally decide the contest face to face. "You've thought of everything," Roat laments near the end of the final contest. Any Hyde Park PhD should hope they are as quick on their feet and as sharp under stress as the keenly empirical, pattern-recognizing, and strategic housewife from Greenwich Village.
Wait Until Dark
by Frederick Knott
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
March 5 -- April 6 2009
5535 S. Ellis Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637