Imagine being alone in your apartment, stalked by criminals who are likely to kill you if they catch you. It's 1966, so there's no cell phone to bail you out. What would you do? What if you were blind?
"Wait Until Dark" aims to put Arkansas Repertory Theatre-goers in the shoes of Susy Hendrix, a blind woman whose husband gets unwittingly involved in a heroin smuggling operation and who ends up having to fend for herself in a fight for her life using only her remaining senses and her knowledge of the layout of the apartment.
She manages to level the playing field by cutting off the lights, leaving the audience to experience the climax of the play in near total darkness.
The play promises to be a classic edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller that will have audiences remembering why we all share that same primal fear of the dark. But, at its core, it's ultimately about the incredible strength of a woman who goes through extreme circumstances and uses her wits and what's perceived as a disability to give her an advantage.
"She's only been blind for a year at this point, so she's still trying to navigate the world without sight," Amy Hutchins, who plays Susy, said of her character. "She never thinks of herself as a victim; she goes through an intensely frightening experience and discovers her strength in the process."
The play was written by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the original version of "Dial M for Murder," which would later be made for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock. "Wait Until Dark" has much the same feel as a classic Hitchcock film. If you're not a horror fan, don't worry, there's no gore and very little explicit violence going on here. The play's scares come from the suspense and tension created by atmospheric effects (namely, lighting, or lack thereof).
The Rep has gone to great lengths to get those effects right. "We're looking at all the possibilities for how we can control the light coming from various sources," said director Robert Hupp, The Rep's producing artistic director. "We've spent a lot of time experimenting with different types of matches trying to find the right quality of light, seeing how we can manipulate it to the best of our abilities." Still, he notes, "you can't direct the light from a match."
"We just recently had a rehearsal with all the lights off, and it's an interesting challenge," said Michael Allen, who plays Roat, the play's main antagonist. "With a match, the light changes as you hold it and move around, so we have to get familiar with how to make sure we can still be seen."
In addition to being packed with suspense, the play is a bit of a period piece, touching on themes of social change in the '60s and drug trade in New York, bringing the audience back to a time when heroin was a huge problem.
Cast members have all appeared in previous plays at The Rep; Hupp said this is the first time he's seen a full cast of Rep veterans putting on a show together here.
"Trust is a huge factor with this play, given the darkness, and some of the physical confrontations, so that helps out a lot that we've got people who have worked together here before and already have some of that trust developed."
Allen and Hutchins, playing the villain and heroine, also happen to be married. "It's great because we automatically know and trust each other," Hutchins said. "We don't have to spend as much time figuring out boundaries," Allen added. "It's fun; it's the first time we've played enemies."
"It's good therapy," Hutchins joked.
"Wait Until Dark" runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 9. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Single-ticket prices range from $20 to $40. The Rep's producing artistic director Bob Hupp will lead a panel discussion with "Wait Until Dark" cast members at noon on Thursday, Oct. 23. at the Clinton School of Public Service. The performance on Wednesday, Nov. 5, will be interpreted for the hearing impaired.