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Review: A few bumps in the ‘Dark,’ but Selma Arts Center still offers plenty of thrills

THEATER REVIEW

You can’t wait until dark to see Selma Arts Center’s suspenseful and atmospheric new production of “Wait Until Dark” because, well, it isn’t dark when the show starts. At least outside. And because of the Selma company’s stubbornly early 7 p.m. start times, it’s even broader daylight than it needs to be when the show begins. (Sorry, I had to get a dig in there on that subject at some point this season; it’s just that if you’re traveling 25 minutes or so from Fresno to get to the theater itself in the first place, trying to work in dinner before a 7 p.m. show on a work night can be tough.)

Pictured above: From top, Chase Stubblefield, Anthony teNyenhuis and Joseph A. Ham in ‘Wait Until Dark.’ Photo: Kyle Lowe / Selma Arts Center

Still, there’s plenty of dark waiting for you inside the theater. If you’re looking for a crisp thriller, this production has plenty to recommend, even after I experienced some major opening-night wobbles. Here’s a rundown:

The story: Susy Hendrix (played by Alyssa Benitez in a top-notch performance), straight out of the ‘60s, lives in a dump of a Greenwich Village basement apartment with her husband, Sam (Rodolfo Robes Cruz). She is blind, but only recently so. Into her life — and apartment — wander a pair of con men, Mike (Joseph Ham) and Carlino (Anthony teNyenhuis), who are up to no good. They’re joined by an even more suspicious gent, Roat (Chase Stubblefield), who immerses the trio in a search for a mysterious children’s doll they believe in the apartment.

The scary part: Susy has to negotiate all this while blind. This makes it harder for her to figure out what is happening — or at least it would seem that way to a sighted person. I suspect that even a “newly blind” person would be able to use her other heightened senses, particularly smell, to detect if three men were at close quarters. In a larger sense, however, playwright Frederick Knott zeroes in on two psychologically disturbing scenarios for any audience member: not being able to see something out to get you; and having your home, what most of us consider to be a sanctuary, violated by outsiders.

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The creative team: Erik Andersen and Nicolette C. Andersen’s set is very good (and much better than in recent Selma productions). Jeanette Derr’s crisp costume design captures the pre-hippies-1960s very well. A key part of the show’s success is Ruth Griffin’s music design (and Regina Harris’ sound design). As any connoisseur of scary movies knows, the soundtrack is a big part of the suspense, and Griffin has found an understated yet unsettling selection of musical accompaniment that can gnaw at your insides. (It’s amazing what one insistent piano note can do to your well-being.)

The lighting design: Dan Aldape’s moody lighting adds to the impact. One moment at the beginning, however, sticks out to me: After a creepy opening prologue (and a wonderful intro projection that gives off a “Psycho”-type feel, the lights go to blackout. Then they come up slightly on a faint blue light as we can dimly see the actors hustle off the stage. I watched a professional production of a completely different title in Santa Cruz this past weekend and it reminded me of something: Complete blackouts are not only possible but are often necessary when establishing an onstage ambiance. Sometimes you’ve gotta move in the dark. The opening of this Selma show would have so much more sizzle if we could have had the prologue, then, boom, blackout, and then, a few moments later, lights up.

Kyle Lowe / Selma Arts Center

Alyssa Benitez plays the leading role in ‘Wait Until Dark.’

The acting: Benitez brings a nice, nascent bluster to her character, especially as she starts questioning whether Mike, the nicest of the con men, is really acting in her best interests. Maya Sosa, as a mouthy upstairs neighbor girl, is perplexingly hard to predict. All three con men have their standout moments, but it’s Ham with by far the meatiest role, and with his character’s natty turtleneck and surprising sense of humanity, he adds an intriguing complexity to the situation.

The directing: Juan L. Guzman ably ratchets up the tension through much of the production. I love how the time period sort of seeps into the proceedings; the setting feels vibrant, not musty. I’m not sure what happened on opening night, though, in the final scene. It’s hard to describe without spoilers, but the stage seemed way too dark when it shouldn’t have been. This, in turn, diluted the impact of the play’s signature moments in which the blind person at risk is able to level the playing field. (Also, I’m still confused about a pivotal violent moment at the end. I wasn’t able to track how it finally unfolded.)


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The personal nitpick: I hate cigarette smoke. I hate it even more in an era when I get to live in an essentially a smoke-free environment (yay, California!) and then have to smell it in a confined space. It’s possible that the smoking in “Wait Until Dark” was accomplished using stage cigarettes, but if so, they’re pretty awful ones, considering that they smelled just like the real thing. For me, that’s a big no-no. Secondhand smoke gives me a headache, and the young actors in this show shouldn’t be damaging their lungs. If I hadn’t been reviewing, I would have considered walking out right there.

The takeaway: Yes, I got a little grumpy with the smoke, and the last parts of the show felt a little off for me, at least from a technical standpoint. But the acting in this show is very good, and the storyline is taut enough to take us past any wobbles. If you’re in the mood for a thriller, you’ll have fun in the “Dark.”


Show info

‘Wait Until Dark,’ a Selma Arts Center production. Plays 7 p.m. Thursday, May 23, and Friday, May 24; 2 p.m. Saturday, May 25, and Sunday, May 26. (No show 7 p.m. Saturday, May 25.) Tickets are $17-$19.

 

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Steph

    Wow. Alyssa Benitez? After seeing her in ‘Urinetown’ I would never have thought her as an older frightened damaged wife. Serious range!

    I’m also thrilled Joseph Ham is finding new homes to perform in…after seeing his ‘Memphis’ I also hope to see him direct again.

    Sounds like a great show!

    reply

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