Blind injustice: trapped in the basement

The taut little thriller "Wait Until Dark" gets the lockdown treatment in the fittingly claustrophobic Shoebox Theatre

No theater space in Portland is so well disposed to making you feel trapped as the Shoebox Theatre. Not that there’s anything to give the fire marshal pause, but what often is touted as the space’s coziness or intimacy can be turned readily into a sense of confinement.

That quality comes in handy for Wait Until Dark, the noir-ish thriller on the boards there as the season opener from Northwest Classical Theatre Company. The story takes place in a basement apartment in New York, where a woman is conned, pressured, and eventually terrorized by a band of criminals hell-bent on recovering a doll (of all things) they believe has fallen into her possession. However, it’s not the apartment’s dimensions that make things so insular, but that the criminals are watchful and the woman is not only alone, for the most part, but also blind.

Clara Hillier and Kate Thresher: it's all in the touch. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Clara-Liis Hillier and Kate Thresher: it’s all in the touch. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Written by Fredrick Knott, Wait Until Dark premiered on Broadway in 1966 and the following year was turned into a film vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. Here, director Bobby Bermea — who used the Shoebox space so effectively last season in a production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for Theatre Vertigo — works from a recent adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher that moves the story back a couple of decades, acquiring an undercurrent of war-era nervousness.

Between them, Knott and Hatcher have devised a devilishly screw-tightening plot with a wealth of hints and feints and useful details, but the script’s logic wobbles on occasion. Everyone recognizes that Susan, Our Plucky Heroine in Distress, is blind; yet everyone also, despite just meeting her, presumes that she has no sensitivity to light whatsoever. (Apparently she doesn’t, but it’s an odd assumption nonetheless.) Much is made of her heightened hearing, but that sensory advantage seems to come into play only when it would help, not hurt, the playwright’s plotting. There’s also a reference to one of the criminals spotted (by Susan’s bratty teen neighbor) in a van outside; but the description is of him in one of his disguises, at a time when he’d have no reason to be wearing it.

These are picayune matters, of course, but since the play is all about suspense, with nothing of greater thematic interest than how Our Plucky Heroine will find the cleverness and courage to prevail, they can be distractions.

Sam Dinkowitz and Clara Hillier: the cat, the mouse, and the trap. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Sam Dinkowitz and Clara-Liis Hillier: the cat, the mouse, and the trap. Photo: Jason Maniccia

Fortunately, Bermea and his cast give it all a strong sense of momentum and psychological credibility. Tom Mounsey as a thick-witted ex-gumshoe and Heath Koerschgen as a sympathetic Army lieutenant conform to the clear types of their characters without leaving them one-dimensional. Clara-Liis Hillier imbues Susan with a keen curiosity and focus, registering both defiance and abject fear effectively, as well as throwing herself headlong into the most brutally realistic fight choreography you’re likely to see all season. But what a story such as this needs most of all is a compellingly disquieting villain, and the performance of Sam Dinkowitz as the mysterious, mercurial Harry Roat (if that’s really his name) is the key here. Roat proudly acknowledges his own mental derangement and describes his sadism as a matter of principle; what Dinkowitz provides is a sense of resoluteness and drive. He makes you believe he’s the kind of man who likes nothing better than to set a trap.

 

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