Few plays in the American theater pose greater challenges — both dramatically and technically — than Frederick Knott's 1966 suspense thriller "Wait Until Dark."
Over the decades, several local theater groups have taken on this arduous but potentially greatly rewarding task. The latest is the Westminster Community Theater, which has mounted an ambitious production under Karla Abrams' astute direction that overcomes most of its pitfalls.
Knott, who also wrote "Dial M for Murder," spins his suspense-packed story around Susy, a blind woman faced with three murderous thugs searching for a heroin-filled doll. It's supposedly in the possession of her unwitting photographer husband, Sam, who's been lured away by the baddies so they may confront the sightless woman alone.
Susy, however, has been well conditioned by her retired Marine husband and poses a formidable opponent, especially when the room is darkened, leveling the playing field.
Knott's storyline is established amid a sea of red herrings as the three heavies, wary of one another, plot their strategy. This sequence may confuse most first-time viewers, but it's necessary to set up the suspenseful action that follows.
At Westminster, Liza Rios plays Susy with strength and conviction, petrified with fear yet determined to prevail. Rios presents a solid portrayal of a woman refusing to be victimized, who holds her own under fiendish pressure.
Christopher Violette plays the sadistic leader of the trio, Roat, with reptilian charm and sophistication, relishing in his intellectual superiority. His is the task of detailing the play's laborious exposition in the initial scene, and he does so convincingly.
As Mike Talman, a con man in hock to loan sharks who takes the caper against his better judgment, Tom Patrick brings a fine quality of earnest humanity to the role. He's a thug with a heart, and this quality surfaces in his scenes with Susy.
The role of "Sergeant" Carlino, a burly underworld enforcer, is taken on by Vernon P. Burton, who imbues his assignment with more comic mockery than is generally evidenced, tauntingly waggling his fingers near the blind woman's face on several occasions.
Valerie Lohman, who plays the bratty neighbor girl Gloria, gives a fine interpretation of a disgruntled child, although she's nearly a foot taller than Rios. Rick Reischman is solid in his lone scene as Susy's husband.
Technically "Wait Until Dark" presents stumbling blocks that aren't all fully overcome in the Westminster production despite some fine craftsmanship by Sherman Wiggs Jr. on lights and sound. In the climactic scene, where the only illumination emanates from a light in the darkroom area, it's also too dark on stage for playgoers to ascertain what's transpiring between the actors.
This dimly lit faceoff, as written, culminates in a poignant ending involving Susy and Sam, but it's glossed over here. A moment involving a burning cigarette is lost when it's unable to be lit.
These issues aside, Westminster's "Wait Until Dark" offers gripping, suspenseful action which will thrill viewers, especially those seeing the play for the first time.
If You Go
What: "Wait Until Dark"
Where: Westminster Community Theater, 7272 Maple St., Westminster
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 26
Cost: $18 general admission, $16 for seniors and $10 for students
Information: (714) 527-5546 or http://www.wctstage.org