By Ann Reily
---- — Though the poster for “Wait Until Dark” features a creepy close-up of a doll’s eye, it’s not a horror story.
The doll doesn’t come to life and is not meant to be particularly terrifying, but it is the catalyst for what transpires in the play opening tonight at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport.
“The impetus of this whole play is a doll — filled with heroin,” director Kimm Wilkinson said.
Con man Roat and two ex-convicts, Mike and Carlino, have traced the location of the doll to the Greenwich Village apartment of Sam Hendrix and his blind wife, Susy. Sam, unaware of the doll’s contents, was tricked by a female stranger into transporting it across the Canadian border.
The three men convince Susy that Sam has been implicated in the stranger’s murder and that the doll is evidence. But with the help of young upstairs neighbor Gloria, Susy figures out their bizarre charade. She also uses the darkness to her advantage, turning off all of the lights so that no one can see.
The psychological thriller, written by Frederick Knott, was first performed on Broadway in 1966 and was made into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in 1967.
Wilkinson, who has been the Firehouse’s artistic director for 12 years now, knew she wanted to bring the production to the Firehouse after she saw it in London 18 years ago.
“I loved the way it made me jump out of my seat,” she said. “I am a lover of horror and thrillers and suspense.”
She knew the time was right this year, when the Firehouse started looking for a counterpart to this summer’s “The 39 Steps,” which was full of laughter and comedy.
“We were looking for a drama but also something that’s fast-paced with lots of energy,” Wilkinson said. “We have not really done anything that is from this genre.”
The closest examples she can think of are the past productions of Stephen King’s “Misery” and Marsha Norman’s “’Night, Mother.”
While preparing for the production, Wilkinson made the decision not to watch the movie until last week. Though she had seen it as a youth, she wanted to come up with her own ideas without being influenced by the film.
When she did view it, “It was really interesting,” she said. “It felt good to see that we were right on the money.”
She also wanted to watch it to get inspiration for the set, which is a 1960s-style apartment filled with furnishings and appliances true to the time period. No detail is overlooked, down to the floral tablecloth and the vintage food items that fill the refrigerator.
“The set feels like a combination of my mother’s, grandmother’s and aunt’s homes,” said Wilkinson, who turned to Facebook and the community to gather many of the items. “My favorite part of any show is finding props.”
Also onstage is a window over the kitchen sink where the audience can see people walking by the apartment and a set of stairs meant to represent the path from Gloria’s home.
“This is the biggest, most intricate set I’ve worked on,” said Berit Palma, who plays Gloria in the show.
Though Berit, 13, has been in a number of shows at the Firehouse and elsewhere, this is the first time she has been the only child in the cast. The table read for the play was her first ever, though Wilkinson didn’t realize that until after the fact.
“She’s got her notebook, and she’s so prepared,” Wilkinson said. “She held herself so well, and she performed so well.”
“It was definitely kind of intimidating the first time,” said Berit, a student at River Valley Charter School in Newburyport.
But the other seven cast members quickly made her feel at home.
“They were all very welcoming,” she said. “They’ve been really friendly and fun to be around.”
Wilkinson notes that she has been lucky with the cast, which includes her close friend Bob DeLibero as Mr. Talman. The two have cast each other and worked together in a number of shows throughout the past 18 years.
“When you get a nice blend of cast, you get good theater,” Wilkinson said. “It’s just truly been fun all the way through.”
For Berit, who dreams of being a Broadway actress, this week has been especially exciting.
“This is my favorite time of a show,” she said Tuesday just before the cast’s last rehearsal without an audience. “This is going to be a kind of fun but scary night.”
She was also looking forward to putting on her completed costume.
“You really feel like you can be your character,” said Berit, who describes Gloria as stubborn but also caring.
“I really like Gloria because she’s kind of like I was when I was 9 years old,” she said. “At first, she came across as very young. She didn’t know how to handle herself. But she matured.”
Gloria, who comes downstairs often to help Susy, played by Kerry Anne Kilkelly — and also because “I have a crush on her husband,” Berit said with a laugh — ends up helping her piece together what’s going on.
Some of the play’s biggest challenges are the scenes take place in total darkness, Wilkinson said. Though the audience won’t be able to see anything that’s happening, they will be able to hear the chaos taking place onstage.
“Even in the dark, they are actually fighting and wrestling,” Wilkinson said. “It’s kind of frightening. You hear them falling.”
It all builds to a shocking finale, revealed when the lights come back on.
“The last part of the show just gives me shivers,” Berit said.
The cast also includes Michael Barry as Sam, Peter Leonard-Solis as Roat, Jimmy Sawyer as Carlino, and Michael O’Malley and James T. Turner III as police officers.
If you go
What: “Wait Until Dark”
When: Tonight through Sunday, Nov. 24. Performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.
Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts, Market Square, Newburyport
How much: $25 for nonmembers, $23 for members. All tickets tonight are $17.
More information: 978-462-7336 or www.firehouse.org
Calling all actors
The Firehouse will hold auditions Sunday, Nov. 24, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for its 12th annual New Works Festival. A number of roles are available for ages 14 to 70. The festival consists of 17 10-minute plays, one one-act play and one full-length play.
Actors should prepare two contrasting monologues of up to one minute each. Memorization is not required. A résumé/biography of theater experience is also recommended, along with a head shot for actors who have not performed at the Firehouse before.
To schedule an audition, call 978-499-9931 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The festival is scheduled for Jan. 24 and 25 and Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.