Is she going mad? ‘Gaslight’ provides intrigue.
A nervous wife, a suave husband, a house with a haunting history: “Gaslight’’ adds up to a taut thriller. The Stoneham Theatre captures all of the mystery and suspense in a production that owes as much to the atmospheric set, lighting, and sound as it does to playwright Patrick Hamilton’s plot.
Best known as a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer and based on the play called “Angel Street,’’ “Gaslight’’ is an intimate and intricate tale of manipulation. Marianna Bassham and Robert Serrell play Bella and Jack Manningham, a couple who have become distant after five years of marriage. Jack goes out nearly every night, leaving Bella confined to the house where she hears disturbing sounds, and watches the gaslights dim and brighten inexplicably. Jack takes advantage of Bella’s isolation, belittling and humiliating her over the most trifling things. He is so determined to convince her she’s on the brink of madness both she and the audience begin to believe it, until a mysterious stranger arrives with a frightening explanation. But is the former police inspector (Christopher Webb) another one of Bella’s fantasies, or does he have the answer to Jack’s behavior?
Maintaining the tension requires a delicate hand, and director Weylin Symes encourages his ensemble to build the details slowly, allowing the audience to become more frantic as the story unfolds. He’s also working with a terrific cast, who underplay these characters, avoiding the temptation to shift into overwrought melodrama.
Bassham delivers a bravura performance as Bella, an intelligent woman who’s become so isolated she’s lost her bearings, making it easy for her husband to nudge her toward insanity. She blossoms when Serrell’s arrogant Jack is attentive, and then dissolves into panic when his accusations start. Bassham keeps the audience off balance, and we’re never quite sure of her sanity until the final moments of the play.
Although the Manninghams are at the center of the story, both Dee Nelson and Angie Jepson provide much needed counterbalance as household servants. Nelson ratchets up the tension with her subtle turn as the loyal Elizabeth, while Jepson plays the spirited, opportunistic Nancy. Webb has the thankless task of providing all of the back story, but he infuses his inspector with just enough humor and self-awareness to keep him from becoming a caricature.
The other star of this production is Katy Monthei’s evocative set, which deftly mixes realistic elements with surreal ones, including a staircase suspended in the air and a jumble of papers and objects hanging high above the character’s heads. Her design shrinks the width of the Stoneham stage, creating an intimate frame for the action, while Jeff Adelberg’s moody lighting is appropriately shadowy, forcing the audience to strain to see clues not yet revealed. Along with David Reiffel’s creepy, suggestive, sometimes unidentifiable soundscape running underneath the action and the muted colors of Gail Astrid Buckley’s Victorian-era costumes, all of the production values together cast a spell that is both menacing and alluring.
Filled with delicious details and elegant touches, the Stoneham Theatre’s “Gaslight’’ is an eerie, irresistible drama with a satisfying payoff.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.