The Idaho Shakespeare Festival opened its 41st season Saturday with a performance of playwright Frederick Knott’s thriller “Wait Until Dark.”
In some ways it’s an odd choice for the ISF. I mean, “Dark” in the outdoor amphitheater in the long days of Idaho’s summer?
But it allows this company to do what it does best: employ the magic of theater — the suspension of belief that draws you into another time, place and feel through the power of pretending.
This Joe Hanreddy-helmed production did just that at Saturday’s performance because it pivots on pure theatricality.
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Its Swiss-cheese plot is sort of beside the point. The play is an early feminist statement about a seemingly innocuous woman who “won’t be a problem” and then turns the tables on the bad guys. It won Lee Remick a 1966 Tony Award and earned Audrey Hepburn an Oscar nomination a year later.
The play isn’t Knott’s best — that would be “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” which opened ISF’s 2015 season — but it serves its purpose. It reminds us that a feminist statement in 1966 isn’t one today. We’ve come a long way, baby.
“Wait Until Dark” unfurls as a deadly game of cat and mouse that pits a trio of con men against an unsuspecting blind woman in order to reclaim a mysterious doll unwittingly delivered to their home by her husband.
Blinded in a car accident a few years earlier, Susy Hendricks, played by the superb Jodi Dominick, is still working to reclaim her independence with the help of her newly wed husband, Sam (Alex Syiek). She’s practicing walking the streets of New York on her own and has set up their Greenwich Village apartment so she can maneuver uninhibited — as long as nothing changes.
Then a woman is murdered, the bad guys descend, Susy’s furniture gets moved around and her nightmare begins.
The doll filled with heroin is a true McGuffin. It could just as well be diamonds or a priceless artifact, and the dialogue could be wittier. But the redemption is in the production.
Interestingly, placing the show in the great outdoors rather than the darkened, controlled environment of an indoor theater actually helps. This way, everything hinges on the acting, staging and, yes, lighting. By the time you get to the darkened climax it is dark enough that Rick Martin’s play of light and tautly drawn shadows, accented by moments of blinding brightness, makes an impact. (Although next month when the days get longer that might not be the case.)
Scott Bradley’s set — a tightly constructed small New York apartment — gives a feeling of confinement. A place where the natives have the advantage. Costumer Rachel Laritz even uses the same neutral palette to allow Susy to blend into her surroundings.
What really drives this production are the performances. Dominick, who has been absent from the Idaho company since 2014, is riveting as Susy. She never once falters in her believability as a blind woman and brings a mix of stubborn independence and glass-like vulnerability to her character. Dominick allows the cauldron of her terrifying situation to slowly awaken Susy’s awareness of her own personal power — her power to reason and deduce by using all her other senses.
ISF newcomer Arthur Hanket is well-cast as the mercurial and insidious Harry Roat Jr., a psychotic misogynist and clever adversary for Susy. Still, Hanket manages to give Roat charm.
ISF company member Nick Steen is Mike Talman, basically a good guy caught in a bad situation. He pretends to be an old friend of her husband to charm the doll out of Susy. In the end he tries to protect her, but by then it’s too late.
David Anthony Smith’s Sgt. Carlino — an ex-cop turned small-time thief — injects his role with energy and surprising moments of humor that punctuate tense moments.
Susy does get help. It’s from her unlikely ally Gloria, the upstairs teenager who does her shopping. They don’t get along at first, but in the end we gals gotta stick together. Gloria is played by Elise Pakiela, another newcomer to ISF. She is delightfully defiant and willful, and also clever and resourceful. She brings a spark of humor as her character relishes the air of danger. Gloria completes the metaphor: She is the next wave of feminine heroines.
“Wait Until Dark” plays in repertory with next week’s opener “Hamlet” through June, and then with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” through July.
Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Wait Until Dark’
7 p.m. Sunday; and 8 p.m. Thursday, June 8; Friday, June 9; Tuesday, June 13; and dates through Sunday, July 30. (Greenshow music is at 7:20 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays) ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. $35-$45 Fridays-Saturdays, $27-$37 Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays. $20 students with valid ID any night. Family night (May 28): $37 reserved, $27 general, $13 children 6-17. 208-336-9221, IdahoShakespeare.org.