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Classic thriller still brings chills

October 21, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A local pastor plays an evil mastermind and a sighted Spanish teacher his blind victim in the Old Opera House Theatre Company's production of "Wait Until Dark" at the historic theater in Charles Town.

The classic suspense thriller by the late Frederick Knott - who also wrote "Dial M for Murder" - will show at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 22, 23, 29 and 30, and at 2:30 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 24 and 31.

Martha Louden of Shepherds-town, W.Va., directs the play, which centers around a sinister con man and two ex-convicts who invade the apartment of Susy and Sam Hendricks in search of a doll that contains a hidden stash of heroin. Suspense builds as the criminals prey upon Susy's blindness, using her fear to fuel their sinister motives. "Wait Until Dark" is a play filled with tension, action, plot twists and, ultimately, triumph, the director said.

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"I just like the idea of the vulnerable woman who comes out on top in the end," said Louden, who holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater design and technical production from Ithaca College in New York, but works full time as a history teacher at Jefferson High School. "Hopefully, you'll be on the edge of your seat rooting for Susy."

The play is set in the late 1960s, as evidenced by the not-too-modern furnishings on the set created by Richard Ayres. The New York City basement apartment includes a kitchen complete with dishes and a spice rack, a laundry basket brimming with clothing and a predigital photography supply cabinet with trays and chemicals. Yet the play is timeless despite its period setting, Louden said.

"It's still effective today because we're so easily duped by con artists," she said.

Minimalist sound and lighting - including the sound of rain and a nail-biting scene in darkness save the light of the refrigerator - contribute to the mood of the piece, Louden said.

She lauded her eight cast members for transforming themselves into their characters with little prodding from their director.

"They really fell into the characterization without my having to stretch them too far," she said. "They understood what I wanted and picked it up right away."

With a little help from knee pads.

Lead female actor Christine Stanzione said she donned knee pads for her role as Susy Hendricks to minimize damage to her legs from running into furniture. Newly blind and manipulated by the intruders, Hendricks spends a good deal of time getting banged up.

"It's a very, very physical show. My legs are bruised from ankle to knee," said Stanzione, 34, of Martinsburg, W.Va. "It took a lot of work to not only figure out the physical limitations of the handicap, but also to grasp what she goes through emotionally. It's a wonderful part to play."

Stanzione, a high school Spanish teacher who recently moved to West Virginia from South Carolina, said her preparation for the challenging role included wearing a blindfold to practice such everyday tasks as washing dishes and accepting items from the actors. She had to teach herself to avoid looking directly at action focal points, and she had to channel the fear a blind woman might feel when confronted with evil intentions.

"She finds herself in the middle of the con. She's faced with trying to defend herself against these men - and she eventually ends up outwitting them, even with her disability," Stanzione said. "It's got a lot of jump-out-of-your-seat moments."

The Rev. Henry Styron of Summit Point (W.Va.) Baptist Church is responsible for many of those moments. Styron, 36, of Summit Point, plays the diabolical Harry Roat, a chameleon-like character who devised the plan to retrieve the drug-filled doll.

"You never really find out who he is. He seems unstoppable. He's the mastermind. It's his plot that keeps going awry," Styron said. "If something stands in the way of what he wants, he removes it. He starts evil, mean and nasty and stays that way."

Like Stanzione, Styron strove to master the physical demands of the role - albeit without knee pads.

"It is hard on my knees," he said. "There's some physical action."

In a play that lacks much humor, actor John Farrell finds himself fortunate enough to provide some much-needed comic relief. Farrell, 27, of Charles Town, plays "stupid criminal" Carlino, a first-grade dropout and petty thief who is assigned by Roat to imitate a police officer to help pull off the scheme.

"He acts first and doesn't think about it until 20 minutes later," Farrell said. "People really don't take him seriously."

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