PROVO — Normally, I am not a fan of scary stories. The kind that make your heart beat fast and your palms sweat as you grip your seat (or the person closest to you) in terror. Usually, I do everything in my power to avoid these situations.
For some odd reason, Wait Until Dark, that chilling, suspenseful, psychological thriller by Frederick Knott, has always been the exception. Whether due to fond memories of the classic 1967 film (starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin), or subsequent great (and gleefully terrifying) theatrical experiences, Wait Until Dark is a story that always leaves me wanting more. So when I walked into the Covey Center for the Arts for their current production, directed by David Hanson, I was prepared to be scared silly. And to thoroughly enjoy the experience.
I’m sorry to report that I was sadly disappointed.
The story of Wait Until Dark revolves around three criminals who are trying to con an item—specifically, a musical doll—from the apartment of a blind woman. The suspense usually builds throughout the evening into a frightful, seat-clutching kind of confrontation.
Aubrey Reynolds as the blind Susy Hendrix gives a masterful performance. Reynolds has an artful and natural touch with the blindness, toeing the very difficult line of allowing the disability to fully work with, instead of overshadowing, her character. I could see her brain working as she begins to put together the pieces of the puzzle, ultimately reaching her devastating conclusions. Reynolds best moments are when she shares the stage with her charmingly petulant neighbor, Gloria (Sarah Osmond). Young Osmond brings a great energy to the stage every time she steps on, and the first fight between Reynolds and Osmond is when the play finally comes alive, hinting at a great potential within the company.
That potential, unfortunately, was never fully reached. Though the very beginning of the show was promising, as the dimming of the lights was underscored by a delightfully creepy music box song (thank you, sound designer Pam Davis), things quickly deflated with the weak opening scene between our three criminals, Mike Talman (Cameron Bench), Sergeant Carlino (Eric Harper) and the mastermind behind the plot, Harry Roat (Wes Tolman). The interaction between the three, which is supposed to set up the unsettling and ominous element of their own working relationship, as well as the scheme that sets the story into motion, suffered from a lack of clarity, slow pacing, and lots of mindless movement. Though an attack of opening night nerves might have affected the scene (there seemed to be some nervous energy on stage, as well as some dropped and/or flubbed lines), the underdevelopment of these three characters undercut the subsequent build of the entire story. Carlino, usually the brawn behind the operation, never managed to reach the level of menacing. Mike, one of the more complex characters, sadly stayed stuck in his criminal trappings. Though Harper was great at playing the “con,” adding in beautiful details that emphasized the cold, calculated game these men are playing with Susy, he never tapped into the more complicated level of his growing relationship with the woman he is conning or fully realized the desperation that comes with working for Roat.
That desperation is partly missing due to the fact that Roat, while calculating and obnoxiously (in the best possible way) controlling, never reached the level of maniacal. He stayed cool, potentially even enjoying the game, but never hinted at a level of psychopathy. The stakes are never fully raised, and it’s not until the very end that it appears that Susy is in any real trouble. The true element of danger—where an audience member never quite knows what he might do next—was missing, weakening both Harry Roat’s hold over Mike and Carlino and his dealings with Susy.
Another element working against the potential of the company was the actual venue. The Covey Center, beautiful in its vastness, is unable to create the intimate, almost claustrophobic feeling necessary to emphasize the escalating terror of the night. The set, though beautifully designed by Daniel James, is on stage that is simply too expansive. Susy and the con men have too much room to move around, diminishing the sense of captivity and danger, and the audience is too removed from the action on stage to be sucked into the terror of the moment. At the climax of the show, that moment where the whole audience should be jumping out of their seats, scared witless, there were no gasps or screams of terror, only silence. I was in the front row and felt no danger. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the patrons in the balcony.
While there are some great moments throughout the night, director David Hanson never manages to sustain the build of energy and danger that should escalate into a heart-palpitating end. And without that end, despite the worthy performance of Reynolds and Osmond, I can’t help feeling a little disappointed, wishing that I had just watched the movie instead.