Reviewed by Nan Lincoln
Special to The Ellsworth American
BANGOR — It has likely been a good long while since you last saw the 1944 Oscar-winning film “Gaslight,” with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Me too. But I wonder if you remember laughing.
Well, I sure don’t.
So, imagine the surprise and delight of those familiar with the psychological thriller who attended Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s original stage version opening last weekend at the Bangor Opera House. They discovered the dark melodrama has some light and even laughable moments.
The play, from which the verb “gaslighting” was coined, involves a vulnerable woman, whose husband is trying, with considerable success, to drive her mad.
In the 1944 movie version it takes a while for us (and the wife) to realize what is going on and for a handsome detective to come to her rescue, revealing the truth about the man she married and his nefarious scheme. It is all very suspenseful and scary.
In the play, however, all of this domestic unpleasantness is revealed as soon as we meet the Manninghams in their handsome, but somber, home on Angel Street in Victorian London.
It is teatime and Bella, the wife (an arresting Winslow Corbett), is clearly suffering from a bad case of the nerves, as she tries to please her cold, controlling husband, Jack (an impressively hateful Robin Bloodworth), with the pathetic eagerness of a beaten puppy.
Bella does bridle a bit when Jack openly flirts with the pretty housemaid, Nancy (naughtily played by Elisabeth Budd), when the saucy minx brings in the tea tray, but Bella quickly retreats when he insists she is imagining things.
When Jack “notices” a picture is missing from the wall, it is clear from his cruel accusations and Bella’s hysterical denials that this is not the first time she has been blamed for such mysterious disappearances. His relentless insistence and humiliation of his frantic wife in front of the servants, which includes the sympathetic housekeeper Elizabeth (a thoroughly convincing Kim Myerdierks), eventually breaks Bella down to the point where she believes she might, indeed, be going bonkers.
So far, this grim, but compelling scenario is pretty much what I recalled from the movie and I settled in for a couple of hours of a well-plotted, excellently acted tale of domestic abuse.
Enter Detective Rough (Dennis Bright). In the film, Joseph Cotten plays this character with the earnest determination of Jack Webb in “Dragnet.” But when this Rough is ushered into the Manningham’s drawing room, he brings with him comic relief. In Bright’s interpretation, Rough is corpulent, vain and fond of his scotch, bringing to mind a sort of hyperactive Columbo, but better dressed.
With all manner of fits and starts and distractions, Rough manages to convince poor Bella that she is not mad after all but the victim of a wicked scheme.
Bright plays his part for the laughs — I especially loved his straight arm pointing at suspicious characters and objects as if he were an old-fashioned directional sign, pointing the way to clues.
Corbett and Bloodworth, on the other hand, go more old school melodrama with their roles, with lots of the emotive gestures one associates with silent movies — pearl-clutching, hand-to-brow or bosom, fist shaking, handwringing, everything short of mustache twirling, really.
But it works. Like a good silent movie audience, we all did the modern audience equivalent of hissing at Jack’s dreadful behavior (sort of a collective “Nah uh!”) and cheering Bella when, at last, she manages to screw her courage to the sticking place.
Director Bari Newport does a fine job keeping the action moving — there is barely a static moment in the whole play — and prevents the scenery chewing from getting too ravenous, completely crossing the line into camp or spoof.
And speaking of scenery, the elegant but brooding house on Angel Street set designer Chez Cherry created here is the real leading role in this play and deserves a huge standing O. Those kudos must be shared with prop designer Meredith Perry, whose set dressing is fabulous, and lighting designer Scout Hough, whose gaslight sconces are so convincing, I was distracted for a few seconds, when they were lit, wondering if I had remembered to turn off my gas range, when I left for the theater.
There are no complete costume changes in the play, which takes place in a single night, but all of Kevin Koski’s outfits are perfect period pieces, most notably the exquisite, rouched and slightly bustled gown he created for Bella, which would be perfectly at home in a John Singer Sargent portrait of Lady Astor.
This whole wonderful tableaux is framed by the theater’s ornately molded and gilded proscenium arch, which made it seem as though we were watching a Victorian painting come to life.
“Gaslight” runs through Nov. 3. To reserve seats, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.