It's not often that a community theater production can produce actual chills in audience members. But opening night of Wait Until Dark at Arena Dinner Theatre did just that. The 1966 play by Frederick Knott has become an audience favorite at Arena for many years, and the current production doesn't disappoint.
Helmed by first-time director, long-time actor Joel Grillo, the show features Emily Arata in the starring role of Susy Hendrix, a recently blind woman who must use her wits and courage to thwart a gang of con artists trying to get her to hand over a doll containing something so valuable it's worth committing multiple murders over.
The gang is led by Harry Roat whose skill at mimicking accents and role playing has gotten him far in the con game. His accomplices are a couple of two-bit hoods fresh out of prison. They pose as "Sergeant Carlino" and "Mike Talman." Roat has concocted a somewhat unnecessarily complicated plot to trick Susy into handing over the contraband-laden doll to Mike, whose part in the con is to gain Susy's trust. Aided by her extra-perceptive sense of hearing, her husband Sam's drill sergeant-like training on how to survive in a seeing world and the bratty nine-year-old girl upstairs, Susy uses her wits to turn the tables on the bad guys.
Arata is absolutely brilliant as Susy. She balances her dry sense of humor, her anger, her courage and her fear - all while tackling the technical challenge of believably portraying blindness. She and Chip Davis as her husband Sam have good chemistry together and a couple of genuinely touching moments.
Chali Moss has a tricky character arc, starting out as a nemesis to Susy but ending up her staunchest defender. She also got some of the opening night performance's biggest laughs.
Cortney White is menacing and natural as Sgt. Carlino. Before the scheme begins, White conveys his character's lack of moral center; but once the game is afoot, he becomes downright dangerous. As the more sympathetic con man Mike, Nicholas Just lets the audience see the grudging respect he feels for Susy even when the jig is up.
Travis Grams gets to stretch his acting muscles with his role as Roat, who uses various accents and plays different ages and types in order to perpetrate the ruse. His lazily patronizing manner counters Arata's tightly-wound tension, especially in the climactic final scene. He's a true sociopath, killing for the fun of it, not to mention going out of his way to wrangle two strangers into carrying out this plot, complete with secret signals and elaborate frame-ups when it would be easier and more effective to just torture Susy for the whereabouts of the doll he believes she has.
There are several questions left unanswered about the plot. Why don't they just steal the doll? Why doesn't Susy lock Roat in the bedroom when she has the chance? And perhaps most importantly, why doesn't Susy ever lock her door? But really, who cares? It's literally a spine-tingling thriller with a smart, funny heroine who uses her resources against all odds. It's good, scary fun for the fall season.