The first and most important thing you need to know about “Wait Until Dark,” which ends its run at The Rep this Sunday, is that it’s a very entertaining play. Those familiar with the 1967 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn will remember the pulpy premise: Susy Hendrix, a young blind woman who has accidentally come into possession of a child’s doll filled with smuggled heroin, is exploited by three criminals who concoct an elaborate ploy to lure her husband out of town and gain entry into their apartment in search of the drugs. As the con unfolds, the tension builds into a white-knuckled nightmare of home invasion. It’s a thriller, pure and simple.
It’s also, surprisingly, a solidly feminist tale. We all know that gender and sex are about as essential to the suspense/horror genre as chocolate chips are to chocolate chip cookies, and the classic formula — female victim terrorized by seething male predator wielding knife or fangs or other phallic metaphor — propels much of the plot of “Wait Until Dark.” But the play digs a bit deeper than that, ultimately telling a story about abandonment, duplicity and feminine solidarity in the face of masculine menace.
Rep veteran Amy Hutchins imbues Susy with a fluttery anxiety that transmutes into fierce resolve as the plot develops. We’re told that Susy has only lost her sight about a year ago, and Hutchins makes her clumsiness painful for the audience to watch. She fumbles with the phone, gropes for dropped objects on her hands and knees, and stumbles repeatedly over the same end table as she hurries through the confines of her living room.
Susy also struggles to navigate human relationships in the context of her new disability. Her lifeline to the world is her husband, Sam, played by Nate Washburn, but early in the play he rushes out of the house in pursuit of work. He remains absent thereafter. Sam treats his wife with the glib kindness of the naturally privileged — not only is he sighted, he’s a man — while Susy’s blindness and mid-century housewife status both bind her to their shared apartment. “I want you home all the time,” she tells Sam as he departs, and there’s a note of desperation behind her smile.
Susy has a dubious helpmate in the form of Gloria (Reagan Hodson), a young neighbor girl assigned to help her with chores when Sam is gone. But the two don’t get along; Susy feels threatened by the disobedient Gloria and stoops to bickering with the child. Gloria’s own father is absent, we learn in passing, and there’s a sense that she and Susy feel a rivalry for Sam’s affection. Observing the subtle cracks in Susy’s life, one can almost imagine the narrative going in a completely different direction — like a Kate Chopin story, this could be the setup for a character study of a woman beginning to unravel internally in the face of an intolerable domestic situation.
But instead we get something more fun: criminals! Susy is exploited by two down-on-their-luck con artists, one of whom impersonates a police sergeant (Robert Ierardi) while the other earns Susy’s trust by claiming to be “Mike,” her husband’s old Army buddy (Craig Maravich). The men are in the employ of the sinister Harry Roat, who is played by Michael Stewart Allen with a gleefully over-the-top indulgence in movieland villainy: shades, handbag and strutting oratory.
The con itself is both cleverly crafted and half-unbelievable, but suffice it to say that it involves duping Susy into thinking Sam has been unfaithful to her and is wanted by the police. As she panics, she falls into the narrative the crooks have created. “Mike” becomes a surrogate husband in Sam’s absence, her helper and friend in a moment of crisis. Maravich plays his part with precision, conflicted internally by his role in hurting a stranger, yet still coldly proceeding with the plan to use Susy for his own ends.
By the time Susy — with essential help from Gloria, who develops from a rival into an ally — begins to unravel the lies, her real antagonist is revealed as Roat. And, as the conflict narrows to a physical struggle between the two of them for control of Susy’s domestic space, Roat also becomes a surrogate husband — one who is not just absent, or scheming, but actively abusive. In Allen’s hands, he’s a truly frightening character. One moment he’s all bellowing rage; the next, he’s possessed of a feline sadism, reveling in Susy’s helplessness and his own control. “It’s just us — the children have been put to bed,” he announces to Susy when the other two criminals have exited the play for good. (That perverse sense of matrimony is lent extra weight in this production by the fact that the two actors, Hutchins and Allen, are actually married to one another.) Even if you know what’s coming, it’s deeply satisfying to see Susy seize control of the situation herself.
Reviews of the film version of “Wait Until Dark” from 1967, while mostly positive, called out the plot for being “a barefaced melodrama,” in the words of a New York Times film critic. True enough. But watching Hutchins, Allen and the others fill out these fairly flat roles onstage at The Rep gave me the sense there’s a little more to this story than pulp thrills. It’s also about a woman, trapped in the domestic confines of her own house, who manages to beat the odds of a perilous condition. Not her blindness — the fact that she’s a woman in the 1960s.