Celebrating its 40th anniversary season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre (CPCC) has already reminded us of the benefits and pitfalls they’ve encountered in moving their signature musical productions to Halton Theater. The larger venue nicely accommodated the more spectacular airborne elements of 9 to 5 than Pease Auditorium, CPCC’s elder venue, ever could – with ample space left over above the proscenium to project Dolly Parton’s pre-filmed introduction and afterwords. On the other hand, Halton seemed to swallow up Damn Yankees and mercilessly expose that musical’s scenic drabness, shuttling us between a living room and a 1950s locker room for most of the evening. CPCC’s current production of Wait Until Dark, the thriller by Frederick Knott, returns us to the renovated Pease Auditorium, which hadn’t figured into the adult sector of the summer season since 2011. Whatever the woes at the Halton – and they include a wayward sound system – this fine production reaffirms that CPCC has grown smarter in how they utilize Pease. Last summer, they took Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, with a two-story revolving set that is unthinkable at Pease, and transported it to the Halton. For the first time since the Halton opened, CPCC returned to Pease with their children’s musical, which traditionally runs concurrently with the summer comedy or thriller. Not only is Pease the right call for Wait Until Dark, it continues a string of excellently designed productions there, including A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia and August Wilson’s Fences during CPCC’s winter season.
Except for one dubious casting choice, the CPCC production, directed by Cary Kugler, is nearly perfect, with arresting performances from the prime adversaries and an embarrassment of riches in the supporting roles. Like many movie thrillers and adventure yarns – or pro wrestling main events – Knott heavily stacks the odds against our heroine, Susy Hendrix, who is blind and maybe a tad lazy when she can rely on her photographer husband, Sam. The opening scenes of Act I skillfully acquaint us with the disparities between the combatants. Sam is tricked by Henry Roat Jr., a dangerous psychopathic criminal with passing acting skills, into traveling far away on a bogus freelance assignment. While Susy and Sam are away, Roat arranges a rendezvous at the couple’s Greenwich Village apartment with two relatively petty conmen, Carlino and Talman. Roat enlists them to help trick Susy into giving them a doll, in which a fortune in illicit drugs is being smuggled. Sam unwittingly carried the doll off an airplane from Canada on behalf of a woman who turns out to be a past associate of the conmen and owes them money – never to be repaid since Roat murdered her in the Hendrix bedroom without recovering the doll. During a relatively light-hearted beginning scene, we incidentally see something that becomes crucial in the denouement: the basement apartment can be plunged into total darkness when Sam needs to develop his film. Yeah, this is 1966.
James Duke has done an exemplary job in spreading out the Hendrixes’ living room-dining room-darkroom-kitchen across the panoramic stage, with a little adjoining bedroom that reveals itself through a translucent wall when the lights come on. Duke even manages to stack seven stairs in the squat Pease space beneath the door onto the hallway, without overly straining credibility. But as crucial as the set is – the layout is nearly a character here – it’s Luke Cresson’s lighting design that must be perfectly calibrated when the blind Susy, to improve her chances of survival in the final showdown, darkens the place after the enemy has entered. Only Sam’s safelight seems to be shining in the early moments of the climax, until Roat discovers an unexpected light source and gains the upper hand in this quiet, tense, seesaw struggle.
Having starred in Knott’s other prime thriller, Dial M for Murder, when it was staged at Pease during the 2008 summer season, Caroline Renfro comes at the imperiled ingénue with more of a Grace Kelly presence, a little more robust physically than Audrey Hepburn was in the movie Dark, and a little less brainy. The slight shift in balance works very nicely in those klutzy moments when Renfro enhances her simulation of blindness by bumping into the furniture – either because it was moved without her knowledge or she has had a lapse in concentration. Where other actresses might seem more fragile or vulnerable at such moments, this Susy seems more resolute and resilient. Jerry Colbert seems to have a great time splitting himself three ways as Roat, with no fewer than three accents and two outrageous wigs, worn for no other logical purpose than to help us keep track of the identities he’s trying to hoodwink Susy with. Colbert is also more flamboyant in his outré headgear, becoming grim, tenacious, and deadly when he discards the wigs and reverts to his more characteristic cat-burglar garb. The whole array lends a creepy credence to the notion that Susy is overmatched.
John Cunningham gives Carlino a sleazy edge, very likely to underestimate both Susy and Roat in his smug, impatient self-absorption. As Talman, Christian Casper contrasts nicely with his sidekick, more salt-of-the-earth and even a little sympathetic toward Susy as he gets to know her. Not remembering the script clearly since the last time it was produced at Pease in 1997, I kept changing my mind about Gloria, the upstairs neighbor who helps Susy around the apartment – and sometimes messes things up. Because KC Roberge is miscast in the role, I found it hard to shake the notion that she might be a dumb or immature college student, but her involvement with the all-important doll and other actions in Act II cinch the conclusion that she should be a 10 to 14-year-old girl. You’ll enjoy Roberge’s squeaky-voiced performance much more if you know that beforehand. Lastly, you’ll be charmed by JR Adduci’s easy way with Sam, whose outbreaks of mischief reassure us that he married Susy to be her partner rather than merely her caretaker. That’s exactly what our plucky heroine deserves.
Wait Until Dark continues through Saturday, July 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.