Furnishing a period production is always tricky. Most of the props that aren’t constructed from scratch must be antique—which means that they’re fragile. But what if the play is also a thriller, complete with a climactic cat-and-mouse battle? What if many of the props have to take a beating performance after performance? This is the case with Wait Until Dark, the 1944-set suspense drama that runs through October 5th on the Geva’s mainstage. “That’s what I love about props,” says Butch Kane, Geva’s prop artisan. “It’s always problem-solving. You have this delicate thing, and they want to stomp on it.”
One of those “delicate things” is the vintage refrigerator that sees rough and unorthodox use in the play. It may appear to be part of the set, but because it is used in practical ways by the actors, it is actually a prop. Not only did the appliance’s interior have to be gutted and rebuilt to carry out the production’s technical needs, it had to be bolted to the scenery. More adjustments were made after the oversize prop was put to the test in rehearsals. “That refrigerator lasted seventy years,” Kane laughs, “and in one night the handle gets ripped off of it.” All of the apartment set’s furniture (and parts of the wall) had to be reinforced to ensure that nothing would be damaged by the stage combat.
A small upstage bench lamp serves as a crucial practical light source, but it ends up getting bashed by the play’s heroine. “And it’s period, too, so it’s sad!” says Kane. “We got three of them, because they’re gonna go through them.” When an antique object could not be found, such as the apartment’s gas meter, it had to be fabricated from photo reference. This great attention to detail meant that some props were actually made to be disposable, like the vintage-style gum packaging.
The play’s period setting posed another challenge: smoking. Cigarettes and matches figure into the plot, and it would be a little disingenuous to present a 1940s thriller in which nobody lights up. “The cigarettes are always a problem in New York State,” says Kane. “You can’t smoke in the building. We can’t have a candle onstage…without a fire marshal. The cigarettes are e-cigarettes. We painted them white. If you look, they’re huge…much bigger than regular cigarettes. So when a character pulls out a pack, we had to make the pack. You don’t notice because everything’s happening so fast.” But a smoldering ashtray is an important detail in one early scene, and e-cigs don’t release vapor on their own. The solution to this problem lay in another essential prop: the custom-built safe, which doubles as an end table. A fog machine was placed inside the safe so that in performance, fog travels through the top and rises from a hole in the ashtray. Viola: smoking prop.
Not all of the show’s challenges were born of its time period. A dead body featured early in the play went through a few permutations before the right solution was found in a flexible mannequin. Of course, you can’t have a thriller without a few knives…and you can’t have knives onstage without thinking about safety. A large kitchen knife is used throughout the play; its edge is actually dull. But in one scene, Roat (the villain) uses this knife to drag himself across the room by impaling the floor and pulling. The dull knife is switched out with an identical-looking sharp blade for this (carefully rehearsed) moment.
Roat also frequently brandishes his favorite switchblade: her name is Geraldine, and she has several understudies waiting backstage in case of damage. All of them are spring-loaded, but dull. When Roat throws Geraldine, the blade sticks into the wall. The tossing gesture is actually mimed and the effect is achieved, Kane explains, “by using a contraption above that’s similar to a crossbow—a bungee cord pulled back. There’s a print on the wall with just a slight cut in it. So when the cue comes, this knife is shot through the wall with the print and ‘sticks.’”
Of course, all of this effort is rendered invisible by the verisimilitude that the props help to create. As an audience member, you should be wrapped up in the story. So, why does that refrigerator have to be so rock-solid? And what’s the significance of that discarded gum wrapper? And don’t those knives get to tear into anything more than a floor and a wall? You’ll have to wait until Dark.
Geva’s Properties Department also includes props master Mark J. Bissonnette and swing carpenter Hillarie Shockley. Wait Until Dark runs through October 5th on the Elaine P. Wilson Mainstage.
Photos by Colin Huth