Turn on your gaslight
Classic psychological mystery unfolds at Theatre on the Ridge
More of a psychodrama than an edge-of-your-seat thriller, Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 classic Angel Street offers deep, powerful character studies. Currently being staged at Theatre on the Ridge in Paradise, this Joel P. Rogers-directed version of the dark suspense tale gets everything it can out of the script, courtesy of the production’s five players.
The tale was originally presented on Broadway starring Vincent Price and later in a 1944 film version featuring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, whose performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Set in late-19th-century London, the entire play unfolds inside a middle-class Victorian home. There, the suave Jack Manningham, played by TOTR staple Rich Holst, rules the home with an iron fist. Actually, fists are not wielded. Jack commands his wife and servants with intimidation and emotional battery. Sometimes words are not even necessary; Jack’s steely glares are enough to pierce the psyche of his subordinate female housemates. Holst adds the appropriate creepiness to his character’s seemingly respectable façade.
As the fragile and tormented Bella Manningham, Susan Shelton is excellent. Prim, proper and lovely in appearance—her gorgeous, billowing bustle dress is one of the stars of the show on its own—Shelton’s convincing character quickly elicits sympathy for her life’s plight. What should be an existence of comfort is sabotaged by Jack’s power play, leaving Bella insecure and unsure of her own mental faculties. Prescribed medicines to combat her supposed mental instability, Bella wants only relief from her lonely, anguish-filled days and nightmare-filled evenings. Jack, however, is unrelenting in his control of Bella, keeping her off-balance and subordinate as he carries on with his questionable comings and goings. Shelton plays the role as it was intended, questioning her own sanity while simultaneously trying to preserve her matriarchal position in the home and maintain respect from the housemaids.
Jack and Bella’s dominant-submissive relationship is established early on. Jack’s uneven behavior coupled with the puzzling dimming of the living room gas lights (“gaslighting,” a term of psychological abuse, came from this story, which was originally called Gas Light) puts the audience on notice that there may be more to Jack’s domineering manner than his deep-seated need to control his household.
Jack’s actions raise the eyebrows of a local police inspector who sees reason to open a 15-year-old cold murder case. The role of dynamic Inspector Rough, played by director Rogers after the role’s intended player, Richard Lauson, took ill during rehearsals (Lauson will be fine, we’re assured), breaks the tension of Jack and Bella’s ongoing emotional tug of war. Rogers adds a bit of comic relief to the role as he makes himself at home in the Manningham residence, befriending Bella, sipping tea, sampling muffins, and laying out his case.
While the distinguished Lauson would have no doubt been perfect for the role, the audience is lucky to have Rogers as a pinch-hitter. His facial expressions and mannerisms add some melodramatic flair, and the audience quickly becomes smitten with Rogers’ Rough.
In secondary but important roles, Mary Burns as the seasoned, trusted servant Elizabeth, and Courtney Hatcher, as the young and pretty maid Nancy, both strengthen the production. Trusted by both Manninghams, Burns’ character nicely balances her loyalty for Jack with her respect and sympathy for Bella. Meanwhile, Hatcher’s character dutifully carries out her servant duties despite her clear disdain for Bella, and reveals a surprising facet of her personality toward the end of the play.
What this laudable version of Angel Street lacks in white-knuckle action it makes up for with its mysterious moments, acts of skullduggery, plight of its pathetic maiden, and a jolly and slightly eccentric detective.