Anna Hobbs will be acting with her ears – yes, you heard that right – when City Repertory Theatre stages “Wait Until Dark” Friday Jan. 21 through Sunday Jan. 30 at its Palm Coast venue.
In the 1966 thriller by Frederick Knott, Hobbs portrays Susy, a recently blinded Greenwich Village housewife who becomes the target of three thugs searching for heroin hidden in a doll – a doll which has inadvertently found its way into the apartment of Susy and her family.
“It’s very challenging,” says Hobbs, a California native who moved with her fiancé from San Diego to St. Augustine in 2019. “It’s an even greater challenge due to the size of this theater, and how close the audience will be to the actors. So, no cheating basically!”
Cheating? Given the intimacy of City Rep’s black box venue, Hobbs is well aware that patrons will be able to catch her looking at anything if her eyes happen to lock upon, say, a prop or the faces of her fellow actors.
“For me, it has been helpful to become very familiar with the set so I don’t need to look at anything to find it, and I’ve been working on not reacting to things I see,” she says. “It’s very easy to automatically react to something that shifts into your line of sight, even the slightest eye flicker or turn of the head, so all that’s got to go. My main focus is on my ears, and trusting and relying on them like Susy would have to.”
While Susy’s photographer husband Sam (Bruce Popielarski) is away, three sadistic thugs – Roat (played by Beau Wade), Mike (Danno Waddell) and Carlino (Mike Palau) – track the heroin-stuffed doll to Susy’s apartment. A harrowing cat-and-mouse game ensues and soon involves Gloria (Isabella Daisy Bond), a young girl who lives in a nearby apartment. The play, like the 1967 film starring Oscar-nominated Audrey Hepburn, makes ample use of dramatic irony, a literary-cinematic device in when the audience (or readers) know more about a situation than a character does.
In the case of Susy, who was recently blinded in a car accident, she is unaware – and unable to see — that the men knocking on her apartment door are not who they say they are.
Director Les Ober saw “Wait Until Dark” during its debut run on Broadway in 1966, with Lee Remick in the starring role.
“At that time I felt it was one of the scariest live plays I had ever seen,” says Ober, who retired to Palm Coast with his wife in 2019 after 52 years of directing professional regional and high school theater in northern Connecticut. “Besides my work in theatre, I love great film as well. One of my favorite film directors is Alfred Hitchcock. This play reminds me a lot of a Hitchcock script.”
The style and format of “Wait Until Dark,” Ober says, “is very different from the typical tragedy, melodrama, comedy style of script. The pacing, timing and character development are very complex. The blocking — where the characters move — is not unlike an Agatha Christie play which is critical because of the importance to the plot discovery.”
“Bringing Susy to life “goes beyond the typical preparation of lines, blocking and character development,” Ober adds. “Anna has had to learn to become a blind person on stage. What is very difficult with her character is that Susy has just recently been in an accident and lost her sight. Something as simple as where do you look when you speak to someone is tricky. I’ve worked with Anna with a blindfold to help create the movement and focus. She has had to memorize the set, so she can move around the space and stairs.”
While Hobbs has worked, as she says, to “become very familiar with the set,” Ober, the sly devil – the right bastard – is making sure his lead actress doesn’t become too complacent.
“Sometimes during rehearsal, we work with the blindfold but I move the tables and chairs out of place so she doesn’t become too confident with the set,” he says. “The characters in the play move things on her.”
Danno Waddell, who portrays Mike, says, “Playing opposite a blind character is an unexpected challenge because while Anna is dealing with performing like she can’t see, I have to perform as if I know she can’t see. I can’t just hold something out expecting her to see it. I have to put it in her hands and meet her halfway.”
Beyond Susy’s blindness – the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room – the cast must create characters who are more than just chess pieces in the cat-and-mouse clash that develops.
“Susy wants to be independent, but because of her blindness, she is forced into a position of vulnerability, which is enhanced by her slight naivety,” says Hobbs, who works remotely for a San Francisco start-up that processes insurance authorizations. She says she was “a big ham when I was kid,” performing in band, choir and school plays, but her community theater career didn’t launch until she moved to Florida, where she has played in “The Crucible” at CRT, “Rumors” at the Flagler Playhouse, and in Jacksonville productions.
“Susy also is stubborn, and once she sets her mind to something, she won’t let it go,” Hobbs says. “Susy is incredibly bright, and I see her intelligence as almost the cliche ‘sixth sense’ a blind person develops because I think her intelligence has been heightened and honed in on even more so now that she is blind.
“This leads to a favorite thing about Susy for me which is that she is quite trusting. Yes, she trusts strangers to her detriment, but primarily she trusts herself and her husband, which is an extension of trusting herself via who she chose to marry. Her ability to trust her instincts and her intelligence is another sense Susy has that could be considered a superpower.”
Mike exhibits what might be called a reverse Stockholm syndrome – he seemingly develops some sympathy for Susy.
“Mike is a complicated character because he’s a criminal con man, so he’s vicious and thieving, but he also easily acts friendly and warm,” says Waddell, a Palm Coast resident who works on the web strategy team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, and who has performed in “The Crucible” and four other City Rep shows during the past year.
“The real question is which part of Mike is actually pretense?” Waddell adds.
True to part of its mission, City Repertory Theatre once again is offering a play that is typically off the radar of the local theater scene: a genuine, suspense-filled thriller. It’s a genre that doesn’t get a lot of stage time here or even in the big leagues of Broadway and elsewhere (Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” excepted).
“Plays like this are extremely detailed, and therefore not easy to do,” Waddell says. “In ‘Wait Until Dark,’ every little piece of movement on stage is vital. The script itself has large portions with no dialogue, just directions for where the characters go in the scene.”
“Suspense is very unforgiving from a live theater perspective,” Hobbs says. “Every detail has to hit, every cue needs to be spot on, every line builds on the last, every prop needs to be exactly where the book says it’s to be. Theater is famously unpredictable, and from my experience with this show, I can see how easily important plot points could be lost if something was missed.”
The cast of “Wait Until Dark” also includes Nick Sok as the policeman.
City Repertory Theatre’s “Wait Until Dark,” by Frederick Knoll, directed by Les Ober, starring Anna Hobbs, Bruce Popielarski, Beau Wade, Danno Waddell, Mike Palau and Isabella Daisy Bond), at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21-22 and 28-29, and at 3 p.m. Jan. 23 and 30. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students, available online at eventbrite.com, by calling 386-585-9415, or at the venue just before showtime.
Social distancing will not be in effect at the theater, but audience members are requested to wear masks.