By Patrick Hamilton
Directed by Louisa Proske
“Fifteen years ago Alice Barlow lay dead on the floor in this room.”
Melodrama, thriller, psychological drama: These terms have been slapped around for decades until they’ve almost lost all meaning. They can all be applied to Barrington Stage Company’s final production of the 2017 season, and none of them demean the product on stage one bit. In fact, I was reminded instantly of a review quote I have loved for years, written by Cecelia Auger for PM Magazine in 1946 about the Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains film “Deception.” She wrote, “It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner…” In the case of this “Gaslight,” that is an apt opening description.
Patrick Hamilton’s London hit “Gaslight,” under the title “Angel Street,” was a big hit in 1941 on Broadway, where it ran for over three years (1,295 performances). It starred Judith Evelyn, Vincent Price and Leo G. Carroll and left such a strong impression that, when it was filmed in 1944, the story was rewritten by John Van Druten, the names of the characters were changed (played by Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten), and as much focus as possible was placed on a newcomer playing Nancy the maid – Angela Lansbury. Bergman won her first Oscar for this role of a woman being systematically driven mad by her husband. Rewritten or not, the core of the story was retained and made its own impression. The play was revived on Broadway in 1975 with Dina Merrill in the lead role. Though always set in London, this production moves the locale to New York City in the 1880s.
Director Louisa Proske has done a fine job staging the play and finding new depths for the characters, played here by Kim Stauffer, Mark H. Dold and Kevin O’Rourke. She has created a wonderful sense of tension almost from the beginning of the play and she has built it to a final climax where the ostensibly crazy wife is alone with her tormentor of a husband with both motive and opportunity to commit murder and get away with it. The use of an arras is perfectly delivered in this play and the constant flutter of its heavy drape keeps alerting us of a new moment to come.
Mark H. Dold is impressive as Jack Manningham. He shows us a loving husband who tries to hold himself in check when he catches his wife in her many deceptions. He brings us a lascivious employer who manipulates female servants with the skills of a perfectionist lothario. He even rants like a madman inspired by greed and a hidden history of violence. Dold is constantly in the mood and the mode of the moment. It is one of his finest performances and, in spite of the melodramatic hints in the play, he seems always honest and real. Always a romantic figure no matter what the role, this play allows Dold to shine it on and, at the same time, convincingly deceive the world.
Kim Stauffer plays his wife with a delicacy that is almost unbearable to watch. She has a singular sort of beauty that she lets through from time to time but, with her dress and her makeup, she maintains the image of a woman too ill to stand out in any way. Occasionally her voice grates on the ear but, more often, she delivers a sympathetic character who is overly confused about her own qualities. Stauffer plays Bella Manningham without the more usual outer face of piety; instead, she brings so much reality to the confusion Bella feels that it is as though somehow she is begging for understanding without ever expressing that need. If you’ve seen her before playing the strengths of the women she has portrayed, you have to put that out of your mind and allow her to play every shade of Bella without pre-judging the actress. This is a very intricate performance – delicate, strong and as needy as they come. She delivers every possible aspect without question.
The two servants are delightful. Ali Rose Dachis plays Nancy the maid, a slut and a slattern for whom there is no mistress, only a master. Her second-act scene with Dold is delicious and about as sensual as I’ve ever seen since Lansbury. Peggy Pharr Wilson brings her extraordinary talents to bear on Elizabeth the housekeeper/cook, whose sympathetic understanding of Mrs. Manningham works in that woman’s favor. Wilson plays the inner woman–the lady in the servant–to an extreme, providing more insight into Bella Manningham than is written in the script. Her work is, as always, stellar and she makes Elizabeth into the perfect, faithful, loyal friend that no true servant could ever be, though many would cherish becoming.
The retired policeman, Mr. Rough, is played here by Kevin O’Rourke, who nearly steals the play away from everyone else as he slowly and deliberately unfolds the story behind the story, the plot that forms the plot of the play. O’Rourke knows how to perform this role. He never tips his hand, never exposes his next moment until he has already played it. In this company, any other approach would turn the drama too mellow. He has the knack of turning his face into a drawing board and attaching expressions to it that say paragraphs when only a simple sentence emerges from his lips. If his co-stars weren’t as good in their roles as they are, this would be a play about Rough, but O’Rourke knows his place in the play and he maintains it in spite of all his delicious talents.
The set by Kate Noll is a crowded place in a large house, a place that is obviously inhabited and it works perfectly for the play. Beth Goldenerg’s costumes serve the characters here. Scott Pinkney’s lighting design is very good, but a few awkward transitions in the first act will, hopefully, be mended. Joel Abbott has provided some excellent sound and bridge music. Anne Ford-Coates’ wigs and hair design are extremely appropriate. The physical production holds together nicely and enhances the play.
For anyone who thinks they need to avoid “Gaslight,” I can only hope they rethink that immediately. This is a production that provides much pleasure and more than a few thrills. Along the way there are memorable moments, excellent interpretations and one big surprise: the play presents us with a channel into the minds of a tormentor and his victim that speaks volumes about our current political situation. Self-serving intentions, we find, can only go so far before they do a turnabout and come to torment the inhuman manipulator. At least we can hope so. This play gives us hope.
Gaslight plays on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Oct. 22. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or go online to barringtonstageco.org.