“Gaslighting” is actually a word. My dictionary describes the verb as “a form of psychological abuse in which false information is provided to the victim with the purpose of making her doubt her own sanity and perception.” And that pretty much describes Patrick Hamilton’s play called Gaslight in England and onscreen and Angel Street in the United States.
Bella Manningham is fearful that she may be losing her mind, as her mother did many years ago. She forgets where she puts things, or takes her husband’s possessions and hides them, and then can’t remember doing it. Her husband Jack is not sympathetic. If anything he seems to be driving her to greater heights of fear and hysteria.
This marvelous Victorian mystery has proved so popular that it has actually created a word in the dictionary. Is Bella going mad? The husband is a particularly vehement example of 1880’s British misogyny, but does he have hidden motives in his treatment of her? Is he a psychopath? The tale grows more complicated from here and much of the suspense hinges on the four gaslights placed strategically about the set. Their brightness and fading may hold the key to the mystery.
The Stagecrafters of Chestnut Hill have assembled a fairly strong production. The center of this success is the Bella of Susan Blair. She captures all the fear and passion of the poor paranoid heroine, leaping fluidly from silent loneliness to manic hysteria that truly makes you wonder if her madness is inherited rather than provoked by her husband. She is abetted wonderfully by Mort Paterson as a comic yet dedicated, retired detective who vaguely remembers a murder in that same house years ago. These actors are so skilled in their interplay that Hamilton seems to resemble a greater playwright such as Shaw, whom these two have often played before. Thomas-Robert Irvin, who plays Bella’s husband Jack, is clearly a skilled actor. However, his abuse is mainly LOUD and lacks the subtle, sexy, menace the role requires.
Loretta Lucy Miller has directed with strict control, though fans of the play will be disappointed in the moment when the inspector forgets his hat. Traditionally the hat is left downstage where the audience cannot miss it. The play is sometimes presented as a deep psychological study of manipulation, but this version is a simple mystery. The parlor setting by Scott Killinger is sturdy and sets the scene nicely but really seems to be lower middle class without the advanced decorations the upper middle class of the era adored. The gaslights are handled effectively by Gilbert Todd’s excellent lighting and Susan Rosenberg Flagg’s costumes create the era.
The servants are an interesting lot. Jane Toczek is warm and soothing as the sympathetic one while Melissa Montgomery is saucy as the upwardly mobile Nancy.
Director Miller has condensed the play from 3 to 2 acts, but it still seems a bit dialogue heavy for modern tastes. The husband and the inspector continually use a hundred words where ten would do nicely.
The evening belongs to Blair and Paterson. They are truly exceptional.
Angel Street plays through Saturday October 1, 2016, at the Stagecrafters Theater – 8130 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia (Chestnut Hill), PA. For tickets call the box office at (215) 247-9913, or purchase them onlline.