The list of plays written by Frederick Knott is short and sweet. Well, maybe not sweet — all are murder mysteries — but definitely short. The grand total is three. Two have become classics, both on stage and in their cinematic variations.
One — “Wait Until Dark” — opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Aditorium under the direction of Richard Baxer. It strikes a note of fear common to a great many people: fear of the dark. In this case, that fear is exacerbated by the fact that heroine Susy Hendrix (Eva Cavadini) is recently blind, making her easy prey for the trio of criminals who invade her Greenwich Village apartment in search of a doll stuffed with heroin.
She is unaware of the doll’s contents, as is her husband Sam (Jared Roy Windhauser), a freelance photographer, who brought it from Canada as a favor to a woman who asked that he take it to her hospitalized child.
The drama begins with two ex-cons Mike Talman (Tucker Curtis) and Sgt. Carlino (Chad Hoefle) literally bumping into each other in the empty Hendrix’ apartment, both summoned by a letter from Harry Roat, Jr. (Matthew Bell), a stranger to both men who definitely knows a lot about each of them. Roat reveals a plan to retrieve the doll which requires the participation of both men.
The revelation of his detailed plan takes up most of the first scene (each act has three) and hinges on Susy’s blindness which enables the thieves to portray themselves as other than what/who they are. Sam, lured out of town on a bogus assignment, leaves his handicapped wife to take care of herself.
The only fly in the criminal ointment is Gloria (Erin Joines), an initially unlikable 9-year-old from upstairs. She is supposed to help Susy but instead takes pleasure in tormenting her. Gloria can see.
As the plot unwinds, it becomes obvious that Susy is living up to Sam’s expectations that she is “the world’s champion blind person.” The chilling finale of “Wait Until Dark,” even if you’ve seen it before, is pretty much worth the wait. Like Knott’s other prize-winning mystery, “Dial M for Murder,” however, an awful lot of rather monotonous talk leads up to the frantic duel-in-the-dark.
Joines spices up the proceedings with her deliberately obnoxious taunts which frequently are too extreme. This is the fault of the dialogue however and, in spite of this, she delivers a strong characterization. Windhauser is on briefly as the world’s most unsympathetic spouse.
Cavadini handles the most difficult assignment well, and should receive hazardous duty pay given the large number of bruises and falls she receives in making Susy’s blindness beliveable. She is physically very natural, feeling her way around the basement apartment, and almost incredibly resourceful.
Curtis lives up to his character’s name, Talman and, when working with Cavadini, develops a very genuine and believable connection with his unknowing victim. We see the friendship growing slowly out of the con man’s sense of decency, his affection for Susy and her refusal to consider herself handicapped. In the end, it is his undoing.
Hoefle, whose role in Roat’s plot is the unphoned-for policeman, pops the action along as much as possible and avoids being the caricature his dialogue tends to create. He is the weakest of the three cons whose lack of education is constantly apparent.
The decidedly evil master mind, who early on proves he has no qualms about dispatching anyone who gets in his way, is a role Matthew Bell interprets with sinister ease. He is a fine actor but here, in his early endless exposition, becomes so deliberately detached that his intricate outline is less than fascinating, even though the revelation of his cold and calculating character is not.
The apartment created by set designer David Chudzynski is well detailed if a bit too airy. I must admit I doubted the final setting could be accomplished successfully, given the height and width of the stage. I was definitely mistaken.
“WAIT UNTIL DARK” plays at through Nov. 11 in the theater at 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org