You may think that you've seen the thriller Wait Until Dark (originally a 1966 Broadway play starring Lee Remick and later a movie starring Audrey Hepburn), but you haven't seen the version Queensbury Theatre is presenting. This is the Houston premiere of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's updated version of Frederick Knott's original play. That basic plotline remained the same: Susie, a blind woman, is being threatened by criminals who have conned their way into her apartment looking for a stash of stolen goods. In this version, however, the story has been pushed back a little in time.
“Wait Until Dark was a contemporary play,” Randal K. West, executive director of Queensbury Theatre, tells us. “It was written and performed in the 1960s; it was set in the 1960s.” When Hatcher revised the play, he set it in 1944. “There are a lot of interesting things about 1944 that add to the play."
For one, the women's lib movement made the idea of a capable, brave woman in the 1960s unsurprising. That same character in 1944, would be more unexpected. “You have a handicapped woman in WWII. You would really, in that environment, expect her to roll over and play victim. She doesn't. Instead, you’ve got a seemingly helpless female standing up to overwhelming odds.
"The challenge was moving these characters to the 1940s and still keeping the essence of them. Of course, Roat [the main bad guy] is scary any decade you’re going to put him in."
Another aspect of the play that's affected by the change in time is its claustrophobic, film noir feel. West tells us film noir was at its height in the 1940s. "This version of the play certainly has some noir elements to it. Our lighting designer [Jean Gonzalez] is doing a great design. The show won’t really look lit. There are practical lights on the set, and...those lights are making most of the light on the set. There’s lots of shadow, there's lots of darkness.
“The way [the character] takes on the con men is she waits until dark and then breaks all of the lights in her apartment, putting the men in darkness. When Susie starts taking out the lights in the apartment, the stage gets a little bit darker with every lamp that she takes out.
"For the two hours you’re in the show, you feel like you’re in a 1940s apartment. Part of that, of making everything real — from getting glass aspirin bottles to [period telephones] — makes the danger more real, too."
Susie is played by Cassandra Austen, who coincidentally resembles Audrey Hepburn. "She came in to read for the part and she looked just like Audrey Hepburn, and I told [our director] Rich Mills, 'It’s a shame we're going to have to wig this woman into a 1940s style. She has the Audrey Hepburn in the 1960s look in her back pocket.'"
Gloria, a child living in the same apartment building as Susie, is played by 12-year-old Anna Marie Tobin, an acting student at the Queensbury Tribble School. Brian Heaton, Ralph Biancalana, Howard Block and Manuel Abascal De Aquino complete the cast as the trio of bad guys and Susie's husband.
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West credits director, cast and crew with finding new ways to tell the story. “They’re not just re-creating the movie. They’re finding new ways of interpreting a really suspenseful thriller. All of the 'jump out of your seat' moments are still there. All of the creepy, uneasy moments are still there.”
So is the play's climax, an extended scene at the end that's played in almost complete darkness.
"We're turning off the incendiary lights to the theater so that they’re not bleeding onstage. At that point, you really need to let that scene play in the darkness," West says. "It gets really scary for a little while. Unless we truly feel the theater isn’t safe…we’re going to make it as dark as we can possibly make it.”
Wait Until Dark runs October 29 through November 15. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. For information, call 713-467-4497 or visit queensburytheatre.org. $36 to $48.