by Macey Levin
“Gaslighting” refers to the attempt to surreptitiously drive someone to insanity. This sinister act is at the core of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight, now receiving a stellar production at Barrington Stage Company. First produced in London in 1938 it was presented in the United States in 1941 under the title Angel Street starring Leo G. Carroll, Vincent Price and Judith Evelyn. The film with Ingrid Bergman (Academy Award for best actress,) Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and a very young Angela Lansbury was released in 1944. There have been subsequent theatre and film versions.
Set in London in 1880, the play is a classic example of Victorian melodrama. Mr. Manningham (Mark H. Dold) holds his wife Bella (Kim Stauffer) with a tight rein while subtly creating situations that convince her that she is slowly losing her mind, just as had happened to her mother. There is a third-floor apartment, presumably locked, in their newly acquired house where Manningham sneaks into at night when he is supposed to be at his club discussing business. When Bella complains that she hears footsteps in the apartment he ridicules her and says her mind is playing tricks.
There are other devices he uses to compound her fears as he threatens her with punishments. He also demeans her in front of servants, especially the young Nancy (Ali Rose Dachis) with whom he shamelessly flirts in front of Bella. The housekeeper Elizabeth (Peggy Pharr wilson) is the only support Bella has, but she is not in a position to do anything but comfort her.
Under the taut direction of Louisa Proske the suspense and tension builds from the opening moments with credit going to Dold and Stauffer He is initially solicitous and considerate, though treating her as if she were a child. On the slightest provocation, which he has created, he turns on her with a coldness that forces her to doubt her own actions. Dold is a marvelous villain. His mercurial changes are emotionally measured and fraught with the possibility of violence which never occurs. It is the manipulation of her fears that allows him to control her.
Stauffer is a picture of a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Unaware of her husband’s machinations she obeys and fears him. Her fragile personality is obvious in everything Stauffer does from her voice to her bearing to her eyes. It is her fearfulness as the beaten party that enhances the tension that dominates the play.
That evening she is visited by Rough (Kevin O’Rourke) a retired police investigator, who convinces her that she is her husband’s victim. He believes Manningham is a suspect in a murder several years earlier and so the plot thickens. Rough slowly brings various facts to Bella’s attention, which she reluctantly accepts until she finds proof that she is being deceitfully driven mad.
The script is full of holes and some of the dialogue produces laughter, but it is the talent and integrity of the cast that allows the plot to ring true. The audience is so rapt and attentive that there is a palpable sense of tension throughout the theatre.
The nefarious plot is enhanced by Kate Noll’s foreboding set of the dark paneled parlor decorated with paintings, books and an arras, complemented by Scott Pinkney’s atmospheric lighting. Beth Goldenberg’s costumes and Anne Ford-Coates’ wigs define the era and status of the characters.
If you’d like to see a superb production of an old-fashioned mystery that eschews physical violence, this show is for you.
Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton; Directed by Louisa Proske; Cast: Mark H. Dold (Mr. Manningham) Kim Stauffer (Mrs. Manningham) Peggy Pharr Wilson (Elizabeth) Ali Rose Dachis (Nancy) Kevin O’Rourke (Rough); Scene design: Kate Noll; Costume design: Beth Goldenberg; Lighting design: Scott Pinkney; Sound design: Joel Abbott; Hair and Wig Designer: Anne Ford-Coates Stage Manager: Renee Lutz; Running Time: Two hours twenty minutes; one intermission; Barrington Stage Company Boyd-Quinson Main Stage, Union St., Pittsfield, MA From 10/4/17; opening 10/8/17; closing 10/22/17.