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Classic “Gaslight” staged at Theatre West

Posted By Karen Young On September 3, 2009 @ 12:20 am In Arts & Culture,Featured,Theater | 1 Comment

pauline110BY PAULINE ADAMEK

First staged in Britain in 1938, Patrick Hamilton’s moody period melodrama “Gaslight” was re-titled “Angel Street” and opened on Broadway in 1941, becoming the longest-running non-musical in Broadway history. The play was turned into a British film in 1939. Only five years later, the story then received the lavish Hollywood treatment in George Cukor’s memorable movie, starring the fragile and luminous Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer as the suave psychopath.

In its day, the story of this classic Victorian thriller had such an impact that the term “Gaslighting” entered common usage to mean a specific form of psychological abuse. “Gaslighting” is a form of intimidation in which false information is presented to the victim, causing them to doubt their own memory and perception. The classic example of “gaslighting” is to change things in a person’s environment without their knowledge, and to explain that they “must be imagining things” when they challenge these alterations. In Hamilton’s play, the eerie and inexplicable dimming of the gaslight illuminating the Victorian home is also an important element to the suspense.

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Neil Elliot (l.) , John Cygan Photo: Charlie Mount

An overbearing husband preys on the sanity of his young wife, inflaming her anxiety with tricks and malicious mind games in order to slowly turn her insane. His slow-burning scheme is driven by his desire to conceal his criminal past while surreptitiously ransacking the house for a cache of precious rubies. During one of his nightly absences from the home, the benign Inspector Rough (Don Moss) calls on the lady of the house to alert her to her husband’s murderous past and malevolent designs. Together they race against time to amass enough evidence to put him out of her life forever.

The play is set in fog-bound London during 1880, in the well-appointed drawing room in the lower middle class home of Jack Manningham (played by John Cygan) and his wife Bella (Corinne Shor). In fact, menace lurks in the air like an unseen fog right from the start. As soon as the stage lights up, we see that the mistress of the house is nervy and ill-at-ease. Passive-aggressive comments from her husband, such as “Why are you so apprehensive? I was not about to reproach you,” just serve to tighten the screws on her clearly frayed nerves. Bella’s stern and punitive husband rules the roost with a firm hand, lecturing and admonishing her with comments like, “There’s your extraordinary confusion of mind, again,” when it is he who is perpetually confusing her.

Although somewhat one-note, the character of Manningham is deliciously cruel. He is a master manipulator, cleverly playing on and belittling Bella’s whims, such as her love of the theatre, offering delightful rewards only to swiftly withdraw them in order to punish her. We see her trying so hard to please him – something he capriciously makes impossible for her to achieve. It’s as if this fellow wrote the book on controlling and oppressively manipulative relationships. John Cygan plays this evil, two-dimensional psychopath with great conviction.

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Emily Bridges, John Cygan Photo: Charlie Mount

Manningham’s most insidious tactic is to hide various things belonging to Bella and then reproach her for their loss. He further turns the screw on his mental torture with comments such as, “I think you imagine things, my dear.”  A short period of this relentless kind of brainwashing would swiftly drive even a secure personality mad!

Intrinsic to Bella’s suffering is her husband’s humiliation of her in front of their housemaids. As the two servants, both Emily Bridges as the insolent Nancy and Mary Garripoli as the sympathetic Elizabeth give superb performances. Their nuanced demeanor and lower class accents (Cockney and Irish, respectively) are extremely well-played.

Corinne Shor shines as Bella, in a role that calls for wild mood swings and moments of heightened hysteria. It is a tribute to Shor’s acting skills that she can provide so much light and shade in what is obviously a difficult and taxing performance. Bella exquisitely endures her torment as she struggles to keep dementia at bay.

Don Moss’ performance as Inspector Rough suffers a little from what was perhaps a lack of rehearsal, as evident from some noticeable fluffing and stammering of lines. As I gather he was a last-minute replacement in the role, Moss certainly acquits himself well, presenting a warm and compassionate foil to Bella’s cruel husband.

The sound design for this production, created by the play’s director, Charlie Mount, at times beautifully evokes the street sounds of horse’s hooves upon cobblestones and aurally positions the play within its Victorian era. The marvelously creepy music of histrionic strings and deep rumblings, reminiscent of Herrmann’s famous score for Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” also enhances the suspenseful mood.

If you have a penchant for a beautifully restrained and taut melodrama, this classic play, currently being staged at Theatre West, near Universal City, will not disappoint.

Theatre West 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. W. Los Angeles, CA 90068 Tickets: 818-761-2203 Runs: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.. Sundays at 2pm, until September 27th, 2009 Tickets:  $22-25.00; Seniors $17 Box Office: (323) 851 7977 Online ticketing: www.theatrewest.org

Pauline Adamek is a Hollywood-based film, theater, and food critic who writes for FilmInk Australia, the Los Angeles Daily News and the Sun Community Newspapers, as well as various websites under the “nom du net” Max Million. Contact her atwww.paulineadamek.com

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