The McLean Theatre Alliance is taking up where the Great Falls Players left off in June, presenting the thriller "Wait Until Dark." This is the "other" hit suspense play from Frederick Knott, who penned the classic "Dial M for Murder," which the Great Falls troupe performed at the Alden Theatre, a stage it shares with its McLean counterpart.
Jerry Bonnes directed Great Falls's version of "Murder" in a production that lacked suspense, no small feat because it is one of the best examples of a limited number of suspense plays. The McLean thespians asked Bonnes to helm their show, too.
A 1967 movie version starring Audrey Hepburn, which followed the Broadway production by a year, improved the story, as screenwriter Robert Howard-Carrington made it clearer and much less verbose. Although the film remained centered on one location like the play -- a basement apartment in New York's Greenwich Village -- there was much less boring, suspense-draining exposition, those long speeches in which actors explain what happened offstage and fill in the story.
In the stage version, the actors and audience must wade through a long first act in which a convoluted plot is laid out to get the story to a fairly simple but gripping final scene. A blind woman is terrorized in her home until she figures out how to turn the tables on her tormentor. (Never mind that after she realizes she is in danger, she has about half an hour when she could call the police or ask her upstairs neighbor for help. This is New York City, not a remote cabin in Montana.)
The original stage production was a minor hit starring Robert Duvall and Lee Remick, perhaps because of the chemistry of their formidable acting skills and charisma. A Broadway revival a few years ago with the talented Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino, who really should stay behind the camera, was canceled halfway into a planned four-month run. So it obviously is a tough play to do well, requiring both an extremely capable cast and a director who understands how pacing and atmospherics can create a sense of creeping anxiety.
Bonnes has some able leading actors, with Skye Henderson as the blind victim and Marshall Henderson as a smooth-talking bad guy. (Yes, they are married.) He also has versatile character actor Regen Wilson as the sadistic top villain. Each of them turns in a three-dimensional and skillful performance, leading the rest of the cast through the story.
Skye Henderson is convincing as a woman who only recently lost her sight, carefully calibrating her movement and emotional responses to show a woman in the early stages of coping and, while determined, still not fully confident of her abilities. Marshall Henderson successfully plays a thug while subtly showing that he retains some humanity beneath criminal layers. Wilson is delightfully vile as the evil mastermind, using a variety of voices to good effect.
Most of the suspense comes as Skye Henderson's character slowly realizes that events happening around her are not what they seem and her apprehension grows. But that comes too late for the first act, which Bonnes seems unable to invigorate. The second act has its own challenges, including critical moments played out in the dark, which generates at least one major shriek from the audience. If you don't get out much, that may be enough to make the darkness worth the wait.
"Wait Until Dark" continues through Oct. 2 at the Alden Theatre at the McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a matinee at 2 Sunday. For tickets, call the box office at 703-790-9223. For information, call 703-790-0128 or visit www.mcleantheatrealliance.org.