BWW Review: Betty-Jane Parks Gives One of the Year's Best Performances in Stageworks' Intense Production of WAIT UNTIL DARK
I have only one qualm with actress Betty-Jane Parks: She doesn't do enough shows.
Since 2015, when I first saw her portray author Flannery O'Connor in an award-winning one-woman performance at the Silver Meteor Gallery, she has not appeared in enough productions to satisfy our Betty-Jane Parks fix. Before that, she was in numerous productions including a memorable turn as Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Since her return to our area four years ago, she has appeared in some Hat Trick shows and in Blithe Spirit at Stageworks, but not enough performances to showcase one of the three top actresses in our area. Each of Ms. Parks' performances is filled with nuance, mystery, and an absolute 100% dedication to character. She's a total original, and I'm hard-pressed to find an actress to compare her to. You could sum up her performance style as "all in." So, when she does do a show, it is a moment of celebration of sorts, a Ms. Parks-is-in-it-so-we-must-see-it kind of production. I know this is selfish on my part--wanting one of the area's most talented actresses to do more shows, as if she's required by law to entertain us--but Tampa Bay needs to be gifted with more from this brave soul. So what if she has a life; Ms. Parks needs to be in as many productions as feasibly possible.
After her latest play, I said without exaggerating, "Betty-Jane Parks needs to be in every show ever made." I wasn't joking. She's that good.
Ms. Park is currently in WAIT UNTIL DARK at Stageworks, and she is the main reason to run out and see this intense production's final weekend. She plays Susan, a hapless blind woman and target of a group of shifty male villains, a part made famous by Audrey Hepburn in the 1967 movie. It's not easy playing blind onstage and making the audience actually believe it. But during this production I kept forgetting that Ms. Parks actually could see in real life. She didn't play into the stereotype, the easy watch-me-I'm-disabled performance that plagues lesser professional as well as community theater actors across the land. Ms. Parks does something I rarely have seen...she refuses to play into the trap of portraying blindness onstage. She goes against the disability, playing into the strengths of her other senses: Sound, smell, and especially touch. I found myself worrying about her throughout, and when she knocked into some piece of furniture, or searched the walls for a light switch, we believed every moment. It's an incredible performance, reason in and of itself to hurry to Stageworks for the final shows.
Frederick Knott's WAIT UNTIL DARK is lots of fun. Bad guys are looking for a mysterious doll that they believe is in the possession of a blind woman in Greenwich Village, and though visually impaired, she must fight them off. And that's about it for the plot. It's not deep, and don't expect it to change your worldview and cure the common cold. It is designed to thrill, like a ride at an amusement park. You will be on the edge of your seat, biting your nails, but when it's over, it's over. With the exception of Ms. Parks brilliant work, you don't take it with you or think about the plot turns. You let it evaporate as a thrilling trifle, nothing more.
The supporting cast puts in fine work. Matt Acquard, so effective in Bad Jews at American Stage last year, is quite likable as Mike Talman (and his likability is a key component to the character and to the plot). Lenny Agnello is imposing as Carlino, and Kaylee Tupper-Miller shows potential as Susan's neighbor, the child Gloria. Chris McCoy is strong in his brief scene, but his character is barely onstage (though the entire plot revolves around him).
Greg Thompson Is an effectively wormy Roat, the badass of the baddies. His resonate voice chills the bones with malevolence, sounding like a James Bond villain. (So much so that we almost wait for him to say, "No, Mr. Bond; I expect you to die!") The only thing missing from him is a sense of unpredictable danger. He seems very controlled, which may be purposeful, but I like to be stopped in my track by something I don't expect ("expect the unexpected," as they say in Big Brother). I think that's what separates a really good performance, which is what this is, from a truly harrowing one that can keep you up at night.
Karla Hartley's directs with a sure hand, and we know we are in for quite a ride. The audience was enjoying the hell out of the show, and everyone will agree it's as entertaining as theatre gets without changing your life.
Frank Chavez's set has a wonderful lived-in look, dimly lit with ripped wallpaper and chipped paint, perfect for a horror film. It feels musty, dingy, like 10 Rillington Place moved from England and set in the Village. Megan Byrne's light design plays a key component in the thrill-a-second aspect of WAIT UNTIL DARK. And Karla Hartley's sound design works wonders. I especially like the pre-show music, straight out of horror films (such as the themes from Psycho and The Shining).
But everything comes back to the strength of Betty-Jane Parks' work. It's what we talked about after the show, what I'll remember as I go over the best performances of the year in December. But I think calling her work a mere "performance" undercuts her accomplishment here. This is something more than that. Perhaps calling her a "marvel" or a "miracle" is closer to the truth.