As blind character, actress had to learn to walk the walk
CHAMPAIGN — Actress Cara Maurizi didn't realize until she began rehearsing the lead role in "Wait Until Dark" how much she relies on her sight to navigate stairs.
As blind Susy Hendrix, a role made famous by Audrey Hepburn in the movie adaptation of the play, Maurizi has to climb and descend a nine-step staircase on the set.
"It was hard the first time I walked down the steps without looking at my feet," Maurizi said before rehearsal Monday night at the Parkland Theatre, where the thriller opens tonight.
Maurizi is thankful rehearsals began Jan. 19, giving her enough time to familiarize herself with the set, designed by Julie Rundell and built by David G. Dillman, a master carpenter at Parkland who plays Sgt. Carlino in the play.
Maurizi said Susy knows the apartment well and moves freely without getting flustered or upset. But as a sighted person, Maurizi finds it hard to play Susy in fight scenes as she stumbles into furniture and falls.
Rob Ek, technical director at the theater, is helping with that aspect of the play. He studied combat choreography at the University of Illinois with Robin McFarquhar, a nationally recognized fight director/movement specialist.
"It's been fun and exciting because everything was fresh for people who hadn't had a lot of stage combat experience," Ek said Monday night. "They're all pros now."
During early rehearsals, Maurizi worked blindfolded on the set. At home she read about how blind people perform daily tasks. One of her main tasks on stage is to keep an unfocused gaze.
"There are lots of sets of eyes saying, 'That didn't look blind. Do it this way,'" she said. "I have to keep my gaze fairly still and not move my eyes when people talk to me. It's more moving my ears toward people when they talk to me."
Besides studying how blind people operate, Maurizi read about New York's Greenwich Village circa 1965, where and when the play is set.
As Susy, she wears a '60s flip.
"Wait Until Dark," which premiered in 1966 on Broadway, is the most successful thriller of "Dial M for Murder" playwright Frederick Knott's career. Parkland Theatre gives this synopsis:
"Three con men are about to meet their match. They have traced the location of a mysterious doll they have been searching for to the Greenwich Village apartment of Sam and his blind wife, Susy.
"Through a cleverly constructed deception, the con men convince Susy that the doll is evidence in a mysterious murder. She refuses to reveal its location, and with the help of a young neighbor, figures out she is the victim of a bizarre charade.
"A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues, and Susy knows the only way to play fair is by her rules. Just how will this dark game end?"
Susy's blindness, though, is not the focus of the thriller, said Maurizi and director J.W. Morrissette.
"Her blindness is an accessory for the character, and it ends up being her strength," said Maurizi, an elementary music teacher who lives in Urbana. "What I enjoy about her character is she continues to overcome things and deal with each situation as it comes. It's a great metaphor for what everybody strives for in life."
But as Susy, Maurizi had to do a credible job of not having sight. Morrissette said she's doing a fabulous job with that.
"I'm amazed by her layering of the process," he said. "It's nothing you can just jump into. She just becomes more and more believable."
Maurizi, 39, is refraining from watching the movie "Wait Until Dark," which premiered in 1967. She did see the play, though, at Galesburg High School when she was in eighth grade.
"I sat there and was fascinated by the play and the character of Susy," she said. "I thought, 'Some day, if I get the chance, I'm going to audition for that play.'"
She got more than she bargained for.
"I definitely have a new appreciation for people who live with — I wouldn't call them disabilities — with things they live with every day."
If you go
What: Parkland Theatre presents the thriller "Wait Until Dark" by Frederick Knott, directed by J.W. Morrissette, starring Cara Maurizi as Susy Hendrix (other cast members: Justin Blackwell, David Dillman, Karen Hughes, Monty Joyce, David Kierski, Zackary Ross and Alexx Valdez)
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Friday, Saturday; Feb. 20-22; 3 p.m. Feb. 23
Where: Parkland Theatre, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C
Tickets: $14 for adults; $12 for students and senior citizens 55 and older; $10 each for groups of 15 or more ("Pay What You Can Night" is tonight; "Half-price Night" is Feb. 20)
Reservations: parkland.edu/theatre; 351-2528
Of note: The theater and Parkland College's Hospitality Department will present a dinner and show Feb. 21 for $30; reservations can be made at parkland.edu/theatre