This month, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is putting on their first thriller in almost 20 years, and folks, it’s going to be a doozy. This 1960s spine-chiller has slimy conmen, a malicious bad guy and a blind woman who won’t go down without a fight. Combine that with a thick layer of suspense and we already have goosebumps.
We sat down with Bob Hopp, Rep Producing Artistic Director and director of “Wait Until Dark,” and the cast to get a sneak peak at the October show. We heard from Amy Hutchins and Nate Washburn, who play Susy and Sam, the couple you’ll be rooting for; Craig Maravich and Robert Lerardi, portraying the resident conmen Mike and Sgt. Carlino; and the man who will make your hair stand on end, Michael Stewart Allen as Harry Roat, Jr.
The show opens Oct. 24. For more information and tickets, click here.
OK, I’ve read the synopsis and it sounds terrifying, so tell me a little bit about your characters.
Amy Hutchins: I play Susy Hendrix. I’m recently blind, only for about a year, and I’m still getting better at navigating the world without sight. I’m married to Sam, and the whole action of the play takes place in our basement apartment in Greenwich Village. We’re newlyweds, we’ve only been married for six months. At the start of the play, everything’s great with us.
Nate Washburn: Everything is great. I’m a photographer and through a weird twist of fate, something is lost in my apartment that certain gentlemen want to find. They have to keep me out of the place and get through her, con her.
Craig Maravich: So, yeah, we’re the certain gentlemen.
Robert Lerardi: We’re conmen, freshly out of prison.
CM: The two of us, Carlino and Mike, and Roat are partners.
Michael Stewart Allen: I play Harry Roat, Jr. He's a sociopath, but he’s the mastermind of the whole con and he’s the one that’s really trying to get what is lost. Aside from these two guys, he’s just more willing to go places that other people are not, as far as what he’s willing to do. He’s not a very good guy.
CM: As conmen, there’s a line that we won’t cross, but you’ve (Roat) got your sot of own set of rules.
MSA: Yeah, I’m sure I have that line, but its not in the play. I don’t know what his line is.
Yikes. So what is it about this show that makes it so unique?
AH: Some of the action takes place in the dark and I can’t think of many plays where a good chunk of action happens in the dark.
MSA: I think that’s what makes it so spooky is that the audience engages their imagination. They're asked to use their imagination in a way that not many plays do, which I think is going to be more powerful because they’ll fill it in more individually with what happens in the dark than we can. That’s what scares you. That sound in the dark when you’re getting ready to go to sleep. That’s what really spurs the imagination. That’s what makes it special.
CM: What makes it unique is that it puts everybody in the position of our protagonist. You really have to rely on your other senses besides sight, specifically sound. I think it’s really unique to be in a live setting and be in the dark and have to rely on your senses as an audience member in the play. I think it really successfully sets up and sustains this tension and this buildup of suspense. There’s a lot of twists and turns to the plot. It’s a very elaborate con that is going rather well, but there’s a lot of thinking on your feet. The audience is following that and then… It’s a weird play to talk about. I feel like I’ve said too much already.
RL: Imagine tension, tension, tension, black. Then what?
Wait, are we talking about a full blackout here?
Bob Hupp: What we’ve spent time doing in the theatre, it’s interesting. You go into a room that you think is dark, then you realize why it isn’t dark. All the technicians who are controlling what happens on stage are all in front of computer screens and those computer screens glow, and so do exit signs. When you turn the lights off and you think you're gonna be in total blackness you realize you’re not. That’s all technical, how you deal with that in a theatre, how you achieve that kind of blackout.
But the play is not told from her point of view because the audience sees what’s unfolding, but she's definitely the protagonist. So for her to win this battle of wits, she has to turn the tables and she has to make these men come into her world. Her world is darkness. The only way she can win is to play to her strength, and her strength is her perceived weakness, the same one these guys have been playing on for two hours to try to manipulate her into giving them what they want.
What’s interesting from a theatrical point of view is how, when you turn the tables, the entire audience comes into her world. How we create that technically is very challenging and very interesting. How they create that world and do everything that they have to do as actors, but to do it without probably the second most important sensory organ of an actor: sight, the first being speech.
We have to craft it. Obviously, if its totally dark up there and you can’t see anything as an audience member, you’re just going to be on your cell phone. We have to find ways of creating that darkness and using that darkness as an element of surprise as an element of storytelling and to really tell the story from her point of view. That’s also what makes this play experience unique. You’re living it with her.
But it’s Halloween, it’s October. We haven’t done a thriller in 20 years. This is something that i think is a lot of fun. It’s not gross scary, it’s not like slasher film, it’s not oh-I’m-gonna-feel-sick scary.
Keep in mind it was written in ’66. It is, for all intents and purposes, a period piece. It has that sort of retro quality to it that I like. It’s suspenseful. You spend your time trying to figure out who’s lying and who's telling the truth, what’s real and what’s not. That unfolds and climaxes in one of the most physical battles we’ve ever done on our stage, especially where light and the absence of light determine the outcome of the story. It’s very exciting and very difficult.
MSA: If someone checks their cell phone at the wrong time, it would be bad.
We interrupt this interview to remind you not to be that guy. Don't check your phone during the show.
CM: Hopefully people will be so caught up, and I think they will, in what’s happening, that’s shouldn’t be a problem.
BH: If someone’s checking their phone at THAT moment of the play, we’re doing something wrong.
Seriously. Even though they're making jokes about it, don't do it.
When was the last time The Rep did a thriller?
BH: I think it was a play called “The Woman in Black” (1996-97 season), which is also a movie. That was before my time and I’ve been here 15 years. We haven’t even done an Agatha Christie.
So what made you decide to do one this time?
BH: Well, it’s a play that’s on everybody’s mind right now because it’s having a lot of revivals. Recently, there was a new adaptation written that has had some performances in some high profile theaters, but we chose not to do that adaptation. That version moves the play to the end of the Second World War and I was much more interested in the 1960s vibe of this play. It’s the last era you could pull off some of the things these guys say.
[Mike and Carlino] are kind of like throwback ‘50s conmen and [Roat] is the dark side of the ‘60s. His character represents the complete disintegration of society and in some ways, one could make the case that our culture walked up to that precipice by 1972 when kids were being shot at Kent State. This play is perfectly poised in the mid-60s where America was kind of teetering either way, where you can get caught up in the work of the 1960s. This play doesn’t have those social overtones, There’s no politics, there’s no pop culture. There’s nothing like that in the play, but in terms of why the play right now, because in many respects, there are echoes of that era in our own world today.
AH: They’re menacing.
BH: But not like Freddy Krueger, not Jason. A good comparison, is that movie Cape Fear with… this psychopath who imposes himself upon this family, a villain who’s both charming and deadly.
As actors, you’re being presented with all of these character and physical challenges. What has that been like?
RL: It makes it fun. It’s a great challenge, but also it’s a great time.
AH: Once it’s cooking, it’s like a roller coaster ride. It’s just setting up that anticipation and building in those beats. It’s a challenge, but once we finish with rehearsals and we’ve explored everything, it’s going to be so exciting to do it in front of an audience who doesn’t know what to expect. It’ll be really fun.
BH: This play is driven by plot. You don’t learn a lot about these characters’ backstories. You don’t learn that Roat had a sad childhood. All you know about these characters is all you need to know to exist in this one room in this one apartment over this 24-hour span.
You don’t get on a roller coaster because of a philosophical idea; you go to this play to have a thrilling time.
CM: That’s a true thing you can’t manufacture. You’re sitting in an audience and you know that this isn’t real, but when you have that true feeling of fear, people seek that. Whether it’s roller coasters or watching something, it’s one of those core, true human feelings. To be able to take everyone on that journey, I think it’s great.
What's been the most fun or interesting part of playing your characters?
AH: Oh, hands down, getting to play a blind character. It’s a totally new experience and it’s not something that’s normally asked of me as an actor. I spent some time at World Services for the Blind nearby. I got to observe people in classes who some have been blind for a very long time, some were recently blind, some partially blind. I had a domestic training class where I learned techniques for cleaning and cooking; a mobility training class where I learned to walk with sleep shades on with a cane and the proper way to do that. I got to observe people navigating the space they know really well and how you wouldn't necessarily know that they were blind.
You don’t portray a blind person and get it right instantly, it’s something you really have to work on, but it’s been a fun challenge.
NW: I push Amy’s character into relying on herself, and doing that and not coming across as a terrible, terrible human being is a challenge. I’ve really enjoyed sort of finding the balance between that and the moments that we have that are really nice as well.
AH: Everything is good in the beginning of the play. Yes, he’s trying to make her a better blind person and she’s a little resistant, only because it’s hard work. But they’ve got a good relationship.
CM: I think one of the challenges, but I think it’s been really rewarding to tackle, is that any time you play a role, there’s detective work you have to do as an actor. In this case, because the storytelling is so precise and so important, it’s a challenge to figure out those plot points we really need to serve up to the audience, even the simplicity of my needing to leave this box of keys in this particular place because five minutes later, Susy’s going to have to find it, or she’s going to bump into something. There’s the tracking of where you put everything in terms of props as well as story that is really, really integral to making sure the audience stays on board for this elaborate con that’s being set up.
RL: I get to eat a sandwich. No, I play a guy who's one a these guys from New York. I live in New York, so I see them all the time. We play guys who are down on their luck; this guy’s broke, he’s not very smart, but he does one thing kinda well: He’s a conman. It’s fun getting to play one of these guys that I see once in a while walking down 2nd Avenue.
MSA: I’ve played a fair amount of bad guys in my time, I guess. Normally when you approach a part that’s the villain, you sort of find out what makes them human, why they’re making the choices they’re making and what that’s about. I just did two years playing a really bad German officer in “War Horse.” That was a guy who was caught on the wrong side, he had the wrong ideas, he was misguided, so it sort of justified his actions.
For [Roat], it was sort of just figuring out that he doesn’t have any remorse about the things that he does. He doesn’t have that line. It’s not about figuring out why he’s good, it’s figuring out how to make him charming, yet at the same time really, really menacing. He’s remorseless. I think that’s what’s so freaky about him is that he does horrible things and he doesn’t feel bad about doing them. That’s been really interesting to try and tackle psychologically.
AH: He delights in it.
MSA: Yeah, he thinks it’s fun. It’s so interesting. It’s rare you get to play a part that relishes in that that much.
It’s a thriller. It’s just a down-and-out thriller. There’s not a lot of that in American theatre now days. That’s what makes it fun, makes it exciting.