CLEARWATER — Near the end of Wait Until Dark, the 1967 film, a dying Alan Arkin springs across the room with a knife. The blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn wrenches her ankle free from his grip, so the madman drags himself forward by stabbing the floor. The scene ranked number 10 on a list of "100 scariest movie moments" aired on Bravo.
Hat Trick Theatre wraps up its two-week run this weekend with the stage version of Wait Until Dark, which debuted on Broadway in 1966. It's an ambitious and encouraging undertaking for Hat Trick, now in its second year as the resident theater company at Ruth Eckerd Hall. This production delivers on its most important mission, that of transporting the audience into a state of fear.
The play by Frederick Knott debuted on Broadway in 1966. This production is consistent with a 2013 revised version by Jeffrey Hatcher, which is set in the 1940s. There are really two stories here — an extremely complex plot about crooks looking for smuggled diamonds, and a simple story about a blind woman gathering up what few defenses she has to ward off shark-like enemies. The simple story is the one that drives the suspense.
Susan Hendricks (Emily Belvo), who lost her sight in a crash a year and a half earlier, is still getting used to blindness. Everyone takes advantage of her condition, with two exceptions; her husband Sam (Thomas Morgan), who is gone most of the play, and a troubled teenage neighbor girl (Hannah Anton), once she works out her anger and is given a dangerous job to do.
Susan's survival skills include an enhanced sense of smell, including the ability to sniff out evil in seemingly benevolent strangers and remnants of compassion within Talman (Jesse Hutson), one of the crooks. Then there's Harry Roat Jr. (Steve Fisher), who bumps off everyone who gets in his way, starting with a dead woman in the closet (Bethany Fisher).
All of the action unfolds on a fine set designed by Anne Tully, and with some eerily charming original music composed and performed by Jonathan Cho, Erica Garraffa and Heather Smith.
None of this would matter without Belvo's magnificent performance as Susan. A regular at area theaters, this might be Belvo's strongest turn yet, as she internalized the facets of a disability and compensating strengths. A spooky lighting scheme by Niko Lyons lets the audience in on Susan's uphill battle.
It is also true that Belvo's acting resides on a plane by itself. Other cast members work with obvious dedication, and that helps. Bright spots include Hutson as the sympathetic crook and Anton as Gloria, the teenager, who despite problematic diction showed a certain sincerity.
Overall, this is a respectable piece of work by a theater that is still finding its footing. The chilling effect the playwright intended comes across throughout, and that is no small matter.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.