Vagabond Players may save money on its utility bill this month, because much of "Wait Until Dark" actually takes place in the dark. Although Frederick Knott's 1966 Broadway thriller tends to be slow and creaky, it's still capable of making you nervous. The Vagabond production likewise knows how to make you feel uneasy.
Knott's play is best-remembered for its 1967 movie version starring Audrey Hepburn. It would be unreasonable to expect any actor to match up to Hepburn's delicately beautiful aura, but April Rejman is persuasive as a blind woman, Susy Hendrix, who is terrorized by thugs in a Greenwich Village apartment.
Rejman makes us see how the unseeing Susy moves about the living room by remembering where all of the furnishings are placed. It's a scary moment for both Susy and the audience when she realizes that familiar furnishings have been moved around by the bad guys she's about to encounter.
Rejman is quite good at showing us Susy's vulnerability, and then the toughness she discovers within herself as she fights for her life.
Susy's husband, Sam (Colin McHugh), is a photographer who is several blocks away in his studio when the crooks descend on the basement apartment. Susy and Sam are innocent people who have inadvertently brought a drug-filled doll into their apartment, and the crooks are determined to make Susy reveal where she has placed that doll.
As poor Susy defends herself as best she can in this 1960s-era thriller, there is a scene where she starts to dial for help on a rotary telephone. That ancient communications technology sure draws out the suspense!
The playwright's basic plot about an endangered woman continues to hold the interest of a contemporary, cellphone-equipped audience, but Knott's exposition is so verbose that you can't help wondering whether the crooks are planning to talk Susy to death.
Although Knott belabors every plot twist in the first act, he fortunately knows how to make those twists dramatically pay off in the action-oriented second act.
This talky play isn't helped any by the three actors playing the crooks. Leonard Gilbert as Mike, Torberg M. Tonnessen as Carlino, and Christopher Cahill as Roat tend to be stilted with their line readings, and Gilbert in particular often jumps into his lines too early and thus throws off the conversational balance.
All three actors seem capable of settling into their roles, but currently they lack the smooth-flowing patter that would make it easier for us to take in the already-weighty exposition. Director Allan L. Herlinger should encourage them to feel more at ease and, while they're at it, pick up the pace.
The other major character in the play, a visiting little girl named Gloria, is played by the director's 10-year-old daughter, Isabelle Anna Herlinger. She does well in a role that heightens the tension by placing a child's life at risk.
When the three criminals pursue this blind woman and small child in a claustrophobic apartment, Susy turns off the lights in order to create what amounts to a level playing field. As everybody on stage blindly moves around in the dark, you'll also be in the dark. It's an enjoyably frightening experience.
"Wait Until Dark" runs through Sept. 25 at Vagabond Players, at 806 S. Broadway, in Fells Point. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16, with discounts for seniors and students. Call 410-563-9135.