Frederick Knott’s classic psychological thriller, “Wait Until Dark,” first gave audiences a jolt in 1966, when it opened a production starring Lee Remick and Robert Duvall at New York City’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
A movie quickly followed with Audrey Hepburn as Susy, the recently blinded woman in a Greenwich Village apartment, being harassed by a suspicious trio led by Alan Arkin as Harry Roat Jr.
The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem brings its interpretation to Reynolds Place Theatre beginning Friday night. Under the direction of Gene Johnson, “Wait Until Dark” stars Rene Walek as Susy and Jordan Googe as Roat.
The cast also includes Chris Cohen, Tomorris Ellis, Michael Hoch, Marlin Long, Caroline Mendenhall and Garry Wadell.
Director Johnson has seen both the movie and the stage play, but this is his first time directing it.
As far as his job is concerned, “the best thing is to have a good cast so that I don’t have to do that much,” he said. “Auditions presented some really nice choices, so we have that problem knocked.”
Putting the play together requires taking some care, Johnson said.
“The temptation, I think, with a play like this is to get too melodramatic. On the other hand, given its age and subject matter, if you’re not a little bit melodramatic, it doesn’t really work that well. It’s a fine line.”
Planning the action must address modern fire laws, for instance.
“Fire marshals don’t like open flames on stage these days, which make things like smoking cigarettes and fires in ash trays … problematic,” Johnson said.
One advantage, Johnson noted, about the new Reynolds Place space is that the set will feel like a real New York City, basement apartment in the 1960s.
“It’s small, and tight, which is actually a good apartment for a blind woman.”
Bland Wade is designing the set, based somewhat on an earlier design. Mark Boynton is helping the cast with fight choreography for the physically active parts of the story.
Johnson also noted that the play script doesn’t provide a great deal of back story for the three men who unexpectedly become part of Susy’s life.
Jordan Googe, who plays their leader, Harry Roat Jr., has pondered what brought Roat to this place.
“It’s fun to have something you never thought you’d have when you were 15,” Googe said. “As an adult, playing someone who just has no way to correctly process trauma, can lead to thinking about what a charmed life your own childhood was.
“You can also contemplate how people have had to craft lives based around deception and manipulation in order to protect themselves. There are people who have no positive outlet and everything is a defense.”
He also wants to bring a different “scary” to the character’s personality.
“Scary is when you know people and everybody else thinks they’re amazing and wonderful, but you know they’re not. But many people don’t ever see that other side until … well, Act Three.”
Walek, as Susy, has also dug into her character’s background and challenges.
“I feel like Susy lives in a very different world than Roat,” she said. “She’s high-trauma, having just lost her sight, and she’s almost back to a place of childlike frustration, not being able to do certain things for herself. She lives in a new world that she’s still trying to figure out.
“She’s also the kind of person that trusts at the drop of a hat. So, there’s some naivete, but also some determination to get some of her strength back.”
As an actor, playing a blind woman requires careful work just to determine that the angle at which she is “looking” on the stage doesn’t look wrong from the audience’s angle.
The cast and director point out that having seen the movie or even the play won’t keep the audience from seeing and learning new things.
“If you’ve seen this play before, it doesn’t mean you’ve seen this production,” Johnson said. “I can see how this production could be very different,” depending on how the actors interpret their characters.
“And this is sort of a twist on standard ‘villainy,’” Googe said. “They’re three desperate men working through a life-and-death scenario for them.”
“And even for people who remember the movie,” Walek said, “I think this story is even more thrilling on stage — it all happens in one place.”