‘Wait Until Dark” is the Frederick Knott thriller best known for the 1967 Academy Award-nominated film version starring Audrey Hepburn. But the previous year, the stage version opened on Broadway.
“The play is actually very well written,” explains Jackson Gay, who is directing the Dorset Theatre Festival production.
“The way that it is constructed is just perfect. And so I’m positive that people will be slightly terrified at times — even if they’ve seen the movie. It is really, really scary.”
Dorset Theatre Festival will open its 45th season with “Wait Until Dark,” adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, June 23-July 9 at the Dorset Playhouse.
The production marks the company’s return to the theater after a two-year absence, a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Last summer, Dorset presented two productions outdoors at Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester.) In fact, Gay directed Dorset’s last production in the Playhouse, the hit comedy “Slow Food,” closing the 2019 season.
“For the last 10 years, I’ve wanted to do a thriller on stage, and I guess 2022 is the year because I’m doing this and ‘Mousetrap’ in September at Hartford Stage,” Gay said Monday by phone. “I guess people are itching for just the fun of it. People will escape into the theater.”
“Wait Until Dark” is set in the 1944 Greenwich Village basement apartment of Susan and Sam Hendrix, where murder, secret identities and a switchblade set the stage for this white-knuckle thriller. While Susan’s husband is away on business, a woman is murdered and a mystery begins to unravel, leaving Susan tangled up with a ruthless con man — and she’s blind.
As the climax builds, Susan discovers that her blindness just might be the key to her escape, but she and her tormentors must wait until dark to play out this classic thriller’s chilling conclusion.
Forty-seven years after “Wait Until Dark” premiered on Broadway, Hatcher has adapted Knott’s original play.
“He changed it to give the play film noir aesthetics, so he moved it from the ’60s to the ’40s,” Gay said. “Susan and Sam live in the Village and if the play was set in the ’60s as it was originally, there’s no mention or vibe or anything that has to do with New York City and the Village in the 1960s. He felt as the play was written it actually seemed more like the ’40s.”
And Susan’s character also seems more comfortable in the 1940s.
“If you watch the movie, she’s sort of proper and has the vibe of a stay-at-home woman, and it just isn’t the 1960s in the Village,” Gay said. “The talk of soldiers fits in better because it’s during World War II.”
To achieve its nail-biting terror, “Wait Until Dark” is be particularly difficult to produce and perform successfully.
“All of Dorset’s shows have such a short rehearsal process, and there’s so much involved in putting this up — the stage combat, the light and dark, and the timing, and just everything,” Gay said. “But I feel confident about it. We haven’t been rehearsing very long, about 10 days, and we’re almost through the entire play, giving it its first pass. And the actors, knowing how difficult the play was, came into the first day of rehearsal almost off-book.
The acting company is excellent, and they’re very fun people, but they’re also super-serious,” she said. “And so they’re basically doing their job really well. They came in prepared to go really fast just to make sure we can actually accomplish this.”
Among the difficulties, there are fight situations, different levels on the stage including stairs making it complicated physically.
“People are coming and going constantly,” Gay said. “But it’s also complicated technically. It’s a double whammy!”
The cast and staff also need to protect themselves from COVID.
“Dorset is doing such a good job with the COVID protocols,” Gay said. “We’re being tested every other day; we’re not allowed to have any visitors at the theater. It’s kind of hardcore. There was a company picnic yesterday and no one was allowed to bring any guests. We’re trying to keep the bubble because we don’t have understudies.”
Because of all the difficulties, thrillers are most unusual in live theater, so “Wait Until Dark” offers a special opportunity.
“How often are you as a theatergoer put into the dark? Rarely,” Gay said. “It’s really scary — it makes you put yourself in Susan’s shoes and realize how vulnerable you are.
“Sometimes, in rehearsal, I forget how it’s going to end.”
jim.lowe @timesargus.com / jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com