By Dave R. Davison
Lakewood Playhouse kicks off its 79th season with a production of Frederick Knott’s psychological thriller “Wait Until Dark.” Directed by James Venturini, the play highlights the acting talent of Deya Ozburn, who plays Susy Hendrix, the blind protagonist of a story that pits her against con men and a murderously psychotic drug dealer. Said drug dealer, Harry Roat, is played by Lakewood Playhouse’s Managing Artistic Director John Munn.
The villains are after a doll that has been used to smuggle heroin from Canada. By a trick of fate, the doll has ended up in the Greenwich Village apartment of the Hendrixes. While Sam is away, the villains figure they’ll have an easy time of deceiving blind Susy into producing the doll. The doll, however, is missing.
The casting of the play is solid. Jed Slaughter and Kerry Bringman both work well as two ex-cons who are railroaded into participating in the schemes of the murderous Harry Roat. The stalwart Ben Stahl plays Sam Hendrix, a photographer and ex-Marine who has been encouraging his blind wife to cultivate independence. Mari Dowd is an audience favorite in her portrayal of Gloria, a nerdy, brilliant and fearless neighbor girl who helps Susy in a contest of wits against the criminals.
The heart of Lakewood Playhouse’s production of the story is Ozburn’s acting talent. The way that she directs her eyes into a middle distance and the way she uses the lines of the furniture to navigate through the apartment are but two of the means by which Ozburn gives a convincing portrayal of a blind person. She is at once both vulnerable and confident. Ozburn is able to depict a character whose mind is always alert — always reading subtle signs and signals that the others don’t realize that they’re sending. It is fascinating to watch Ozburn’s version of Susy (played by Audrey Hepburn in the 1967 Hollywood version of the story) as she works out what the villains are up to and then devises a means to fend them off.
The set faithfully reproduces a 1960’s apartment. Several times, however, the props that are used cause a temporal dissonance that detracts slightly from the story. Once, for example, one of the villains uses a squeeze bottle of mustard rather than a glass jar, as would have been found in a 60s apartment. At another point, the Sam leaves carrying a contemporary, padded bag instead of a hard case characteristic of the time period.
For a show that is dealing with the elements of darkness and light (both symbolically and as a major feature of the story), the lighting in the show is at times confusing. There are moments, for example, when dim lighting is understood to be darkness. But at other times, including the moment of maximum conflict, the stage is almost totally dark. The use of a lamp in the corner was also perplexing. At one point, it seemed to be going on and off at random intervals. It was also turned so that it was glaring into the eyes of the audience. This may have been an opening night glitch but it distracts from the ability of the audience to approach total immersion in the story.
Nevertheless, what comes through is Ozburn’s brilliant portrayal of Susy, the sightless character for whom blindness is not a handicap but rather something that strengthens her by sharpening her perceptions and giving her the advantage of being able to level the playing field when it comes down to the struggle of the hero against the villain. It is well worth a night at the theater to watch this performance by one of the region’s more gifted actors.
“Wait Until Dark” runs through Oct. 8. For further information, visit Lakewoodplayhouse.com.