Wait Until Dark
- By gentleguide
- On Fri 18 oct 2019
Next week, Tallgrass Theatre Company opens their season with a classic drama of suspense. Wait Until Dark is the story of a woman under siege, with con men trying to steal a specific item from her either by deception or force. Not only is she outnumbered, she has a definite disadvantage in that she’s blind... but when no one can see, she’s ahead of the fight.
Originally written over fifty years ago, Wait Until Dark Broadway lead actress Lee Remick was nominated for a Tony, and a movie adaptation was filmed almost immediately. It starred Audrey Hepburn, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role of Susy Hendrix, the blind woman at the center of the show. This time around local favorite Maggie Harris portrays Susy, working with the amazing artists who make up the cast and crew of Tallgrass Theatre Company.
Setting the Stage
One of the best parts of Tallgrass Theatre is their attention to detail, and the wonderfully creative sets for their shows. Scenic Designer Ronnie Wells won a Cloris Award two years ago for his work with On Golden Pond, and was nominated again last year for The Foreigner. There are a couple of particular needs with the staging of Wait Until Dark, and Wells is well aware of what his set design has to accomplish both for the audience and the cast. And then, of course, there are budget realities that have to be faced.
“The script is very specific with things that are needed in terms of overall design,” says Wells. “When I design scenery at Tallgrass, part of the fun and challenge comes from getting super creative in identifying how to create these worlds on stage, while being as resourceful as possible. What most audience members don’t see is the budget component of my designs; they just see the final product on stage. Most of my scenic design budgets range from $800-$900. This is no different for Wait Until Dark.”
“For this production, the script specifically identifies several key areas to be represented on stage in this basement apartment: a kitchen (with a fridge, a sink, a stove, a washing machine, etc.), dining table, living room, photographer’s dark room, an exterior space, etc. When you think through all of these specifics and think through the budget, one has to be super creative with how and where to spend the money. We have to ask ourselves; are there items in storage that we can use and modify? Who do we know that we might be able to borrow something from? Are there other resources that we can tap into?
Lighting the Way
“We’re going with the original time period of the script-1966,” reports the director, Mark Littlejohn. “We’re aren’t noting that in the program, but will let the performance set the time and place through period dress, props, stage design and choices of music for pre-show and show. I’d say the most difficult part of presenting the period is finding/crafting costumes and specific props.”
Littlejohn has been putting the cast through their paces, and he also is cognizant of the unique nature of Wait Until Dark. “I stage managed this show 20+ years ago during my graduate studies internship, fell in love with it, and have wanted to direct it ever since. I’m calling it a thriller, and I believe that’s achieved through believable, honest characterization, a precise management of pace, and focusing on making the audience really fear for the life of Susy.”
“Maggie has been doing a ton of amazing character work to make Susy’s blindness believable,” he says. “The space itself is not set up for a blind person. The biggest challenge as I see it, is following the playwright’s intricate clues and foreshadowing that lay out for an attentive audience how Susy will use her blindness as a weapon against our villains.”
Darkness as an Advantage
Maggie Harris has been working on developing Susy as a complete character. While the blindness is a specific trait necessary for the plot, Harris wants to make certain there’s more to Susy than just that hook. “The difficulty with playing a blind person for me has been to not play AT the blindness or to have her blindness overtake the characterization. It's been fun to really try and dig into Susy as a person and character and then slowly layer in what being blind for her means.”
“She hasn't been blind all her life and really this has been a fairly recent development for her. So it's been nice to peel the layers of the onion back. Susy's husband refuses to let her ‘settle’ and pushes her to go on thriving just as any sighted person would. While naive, Susy is a smart and resourceful young woman. The other con men seem to grossly underestimate her capabilities.”
Wells has worked with Harris and the rest of the cast to get everyone up to speed with the story and suspense. There’s a lot happening in Wait Until Dark that is dependent on the specifics of the environment and how the characters react to it. “Speaking as the scenic designer for the show, this was a challenge that we had to talk through as a team, and then decide what our plan was to get as many of the set pieces in place as soon as possible. With Susy being a blind woman, we needed Maggie (as well as the rest of the cast) to be as comfortable with the placement of different furniture pieces, locations of doors, the main stairs leading down and into the apartment.”
“The set, as described by the playwright, should feel a bit more masculine. Susy and her husband Sam have been together for just over a year. So, we made the decision that there wouldn’t be a lot of femininity to the look and feel of the overall set design and its dressings. Susy simply has moved into Sam’s apartment and she has learned to navigate through her life by learning as much as she can from her surroundings and being able to use her other senses to keep as informed as possible. You see these delicate touches of how Susy leads her life in Mark Littlejohn’s direction and in Maggie’s character traits of Susy.”
“There are some fun things that we’re rolling out regarding technical challenges for this production,” adds Wells. “It’s not just a show where you can have the stage lights on or off; even though it’s a ‘box set’. So, how do we execute the actors being seen on stage during one of the script’s most action packed moments? How do we put everyone (including the audience) on the same playing field as Susy, a blind woman?”
Harris is ready to take the audience on the journey into darkness. “This was a whole new challenge for me and it's exciting to try my hand at something different. The audience knows the set up the entire time and it's suspenseful to watch Susy learn and try to figure out what's happening. This all slowly develops and will hopefully leave you hanging on the edge of your seat!”
Wait Until Dark opens Friday October 25 and runs for three weekends. Performances are at the Rex Mathes Auditorium (1401 Vine St. in West Des Moines). Tickets are available through the Tallgrass Theatre Company website, and a limited number will be available at the door.