Bella Manningham is losing her mind just like her mother did. Things keep disappearing. A missing portrait keeps turning up behind a bureau. The grocery bill’s gone missing.
Her husband Jack warns what will happen to her if she does not behave as a proper wife in the Victorian Age should. Try as she might, madness seems the only explanation for what’s happening to Bella until a stranger knocks on her door.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight” is visually lush, satisfyingly suspenseful and surprisingly modern in its portrayal of the techniques emotional abusers use to manipulate their victims. Director Bari Newport sometimes sacrifices dramatic tension for the sake of humor, but that does not significantly mar the production.
Set in 1880 in London, “Gaslight” is a tale of emotional domestic abuse and how one woman is rescued from her husband by the truth. First performed in 1938, it introduced the term “gaslighting” into the language as a way to “manipulate [someone] by psychological means into questioning their own sanity,” according to the online dictionary Lexico.
The real star of PTC’s production is the technical team that brought the Angel Street house to life with dimming “gaslights” and old fashioned footlights along the edge of the stage. Chez Cherry’s set immediately takes the audience more than a century back in time. It is impressive and imposing as are Kevin Koski’s period costumes. Both feature shades of green and gold that are welcoming rather than sinister.
Scout Hough’s lighting bathes the set in warm, yellow light that belies the danger the house holds. That threat often is signaled by Sean McGinley’s complex sound design that includes music used to set a mood and foreshadow trouble for certain characters the way a film score does.
Robin Bloodworth is charmingly menacing as the villain Jack Manningham. He last appeared in Bangor more than six years ago in “Around the World in 80 Days.”
The actor understands how an abusive partner exercises power and control to keep his victim questioning her instincts and her sanity. In each encounter with Bella, Bloodworth ratchets up the manipulations just a little more. It is a chilling portrayal that will haunt audiences long after the character gets his comeuppance.
The retired detective Rough, who comes to Mrs. Manningham’s rescue, is part Sherlock Holmes, part Mrs. Marple in the hands of actor Dennis Price. Rough’s powers of persuasion prevail as he shows the woman evidence of her husband’s lies.
Price’s instinct is to play the character as a caricature rather than an obsessed police officer, but at most opportunities he restrains himself. The laughs he sparingly elicits from the audience break the tension inherent in catching the culprit. It seems a disservice to Hamilton’s taught script, especially in the final act, when he gets laughs while capturing the villain.
Winslow Corbett as the distraught Bella Manningham expertly teeters on the edge of insanity for much of the play. Just as she seems to have found her footing, her husband pulls the rug out from under her and she tumbles into doubting herself. The one flaw in Corbett’s performance is her inability to show the audience from the opening scene that Bella can muster the gumption to remove herself from Manningham’s influence.
Bangor High School senior Elisabeth Budd as the coquettish maid Nancy is delightful. Her naivete about her employer’s true nature is believable but sad. The stolen glances between Nancy and Jack feed the audience’s suspicions about his true nature and help demonstrate his ability to amass victims.
Kim Meyerdierks rounds out the cast as housekeeper Elizabeth. While she has few lines, the actress signals with a glance her disapproval of the master.
“Gaslight” is a stunningly beautiful production, that is mostly well executed and acted. In the end, it is Bloodworth’s chilling performance that impacts theatergoers the most. Some may feel after the gaslight onstage is turned down and the house lights go up that this charming villain is following them home, intent on targeting a new victim.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Gaslight” will be performed through Nov. 3 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor. For more information, call 207-942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.