Over the last five summers, I've attended more than a dozen productions directed by the Timber Lake Playhouse's artistic director, Brad Lyons, and the majority of them have been utterly sensational. But I can't recall ever being more knocked out by the man's skills and obvious love for his craft than I was during Friday night's Wait Until Dark, Timber Lake's current - and top-to-bottom stunning - presentation of playwright Frederick Knott's 1966 thriller.
Granted, this is a risky assertion to make, considering Lyons' virtuoso takes on The Full Monty, Urinetown, Bat Boy the Musical, All Shook Up, The Producers, the recent The Wedding Singer, et cetera, et cetera. (Seriously, if you haven't been visiting Timber Lake at least once per summer, you've been missing out.) But while this Wait Until Dark is a splendid showcase for numerous talents, notably set designer Stephen D. English and actress Amanda Hendricks, it's Lyons' superb directorial control and unerring senses of composition and pacing that really make the show sing, and without songs, to boot. This is the scariest stage production I've ever seen - ever - and exiting the theatre, I was hugely grateful for the 70-minute car ride home, as it took nearly half that time for my nerves to fully steady themselves. The thrilling performance buzz I left with, however, stuck with me well into the next day.
For those unfamiliar with the material, it's a rather complicated, oftentimes wildly contrived take on a relatively simple story, in which a trio of menacing hoods attempt to steal a heroin-filled doll from the New York apartment of photographer Sam Hendrix (Carl Hendin) and his wife Susy (Hendricks). After the crooks dispatch Sam to an (invented) out-of-town assignment, they concoct an intricate ruse that'll force his spouse to procure the doll, not realizing that Susy - unaware of the doll's contents - has no idea where it is. Wait Until Dark's twist, though, is that Susy is blind, and as her situation grows more and more dire, the frightened, disoriented woman has to stay one step ahead of the thugs without the benefit of eyesight ... and without even knowing whether they're in the apartment with her.
It's a great, juicy setup that, admittedly, does feature a hole or two. Chief among them: Why don't the bad guys, one of whom is obviously a raving psychopath, just bully Susy into handing over the doll from the outset? Why the elaborate game of cat-and-mouse? The answer, of course, is that this way is far more enjoyable for an audience - or at least, it is when directed with the playful spookiness and vise-tightening excitement that Lyons provides.
His handling of the nightmarish, stumbling roundelay between Susy and her foes is so forceful and assured, in truth, that the results might easily have been unendurable if they weren't this much fun. But Wait Until Dark's director choreographs the escalating tension so extraordinarily well that you're generally one beat away from either yelping or laughing out loud. (During the heart-stopping climax, you just might be doing both.) Employing Renya Larson's disturbing, first-rate original score with wizardly effectiveness, Lyons stages moments here to give you the heebie-jeebies for weeks - I might never forget the image of Rod Lawrence's villain silently peering through the kitchen window, or Justin Verstraete's loon crouched by the refrigerator - and he guides his cast to portrayals that are (sometimes literally) to-die-for good.
Lawrence and Kyle Szen are fantastically threatening as two of Susy's assailants, and Verstraete, as team leader Harry Roat, is a viciously engaging and unpredictable nutjob; his lightly stylized readings are reminiscent of John Malkovich at his most hypnotically perverse. Hendin brings welcome sanity and sweetness to his role, while young Morgan Zuidema's happily unapologetic brattiness lends the show a much-needed lightness of spirit. And enough can't possibly be said about Hendricks. Not for an instant are you unconvinced about Susy's blindness, or her anxiety, or her good humor, or her peril; the dazzlingly empathetic and truthful Hendricks - navigating English's wondrously detailed set with nervy brilliance - plays so many notes simultaneously that she leaves you absolutely floored.
Yet for all of her performance's emotional and physical challenges, Hendricks still walked out for Friday's curtain call, and its deserved standing ovation, sporting a big smile. (As actors always should.) The actress looked slightly exhausted, yes, and understandably so, but she also appeared jazzed and revitalized, as though she was ready to take on the demanding show all over again - and I, for one, completely related. Timber Lake's Wait Until Dark is, in many ways, a draining experience; you feel all but wiped out when it's over. It is, however, an exhilarating draining experience - a true celebration of the occasional joy in being scared shitless - and it's not at all incongruous that Lyons scores the curtain call to an up-tempo Beatles tune. This dynamic entertainment doesn't tie your innards in knots so much as it makes them dance.
For tickets and information, call (815)244-2035 or visit TimberLakePlayhouse.org.