Dallas — Artistic Producer (and de facto parent) of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Sue Loncar, says in her curtain speech for Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott that you should tell people to come if you like the show. If you don’t like it, tell them to come anyway. They’re not proud, but with this production directed by Sharon Benge, they should be.
CTD could stand for Comfortable Theater of Dallas. In a converted church so small there isn’t a bad seat, they stage well-trod fodder from the theater canon with a bar in the back of the house that serves a thematically matched signature cocktail for each show (this time it’s the “Shot in the Dark”). CTD is what happens when theater gets over “being edgy” and grows up.
Though this is their first thriller, director Benge steers the show so effortlessly between suspense and surprise you’d be forgiven for thinking that they always have one in their season. After this, they might.
Part of that feeling comes from old hands like set designer Rodney Dobbs, who fills the proscenium with a dingily, detailed period apartment just cluttered enough to make us all claustrophobic; and sound designer Rich Frohlich, who manages to find the right retro suspense underscoring. Who knew cheesy could be so chilling?
The play centers around newly blind Susy Hendrix (Krishna Smitha) who is a sitting duck for three con men looking for a drug-filled doll her photographer husband, Sam (Ian Mead Moore), unintentionally smuggled into the country. There are twists and turns to their manipulation but the real movement of the play happens inside our heroine. Will she figure it out in time? With only the help of her upstairs neighbor, 10-year-old Gloria (Kendall Tubbs), can she outwit, outplay and outlast to be the survivor?
For the theater to really thrill, we have to fear the foes. Fortunately, we have our pick of poisons. Bryan Pitts is the sensitive but powerful prowler, backed up by his less thoughtful partner, played by Seth Johnston. Recently released from prison the duo turns up for an easy score to find that their former partner has been replaced by a more sinister manipulator, played by Bill Jenkins. All three actors bring honor amongst their portrayal of thieves but Pitts and Jenkins further distinguish in the category of conscience, Pitts adding extra and Jenkins, the opposite. In fact, it’s his menacing sadism that propels us through the climax.
The evening hinges on the damsel, however. Krishna Smitha isn’t your usual honey-haired heroine from on high. She’s disarmingly agreeable, actually. Whether it’s teasing her husband or laughing off her misfortunate loss of eyesight, she inhabits our earthly plane with such good-humored ease we have no excuse not to root for her. Most importantly, Smitha is able to bring to bear the cleverness inherent in the script in a believable way, keeping just one step ahead of us as well as the bad guys. By the time we know what she’s up to, there’s another twist. Hint: she does as the title tells her.
Everything works out in the end but knowing that won’t make it any less intense. There’s just something about the power of things going bump in the dark that really gets the heart going.
By the end, you’re going to need that signature cocktail. Fortunately, it’s just a few rows away.