Updated: Jun 20, 2020
"... If you like melodrama, then this is the show for you."
In 1939, Patrick Hamilton's thriller ''Gas Light'' opened in London, and in 1941 the same play, about a fiendish husband trying to drive his wife insane, opened in New York under a different title, called ''Angel Street.'' Later Hollywood made it into a suspense thriller movie with none other than Ingrid Bergman (Academy Award for Best Actress in the 1944 film), Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten, but once again titled it ''Gaslight.'' And so the euphemism emerges. Because of Hamilton having written the play, the phrase “to gaslight” – or “to terrify and confuse somebody else to the extent that the victim questions his or her own sanity” – was coined and became a common expression.
This play also has the distinction to be Fullerton Union High School’s very first production every performed in the Little Theatre back in 1965 and the drama department has remounted this production in the new Black Box Theatre this month, under the direction of Alumni Zachary Hillman. While “Angel Street” may not have the complicated red herrings and twists in its script as other melodramatic plays over the years, the quality of the script is so strong that even when it’s apparent where the story and characters are headed, we still enjoy the ride.
The entire story takes place in an old but upper middle class Victorian mansion located in the Pimlico district of London on Angel Street. We are quickly introduced to a nervous young woman, Bella Manningham, played by seniors Natalie Carter (“Peter Pan,” “Women of Lockerbie”) and Ana Bane (“Cinderella,” “Kiss Me Kate”), and to her sadistic husband, Mr. Manningham (David Kwon, a junior). The audience soon catches on that the young woman’s mother died in an institution for the mentally ill, and the master of the house, Jack Manningham, is trying to persuade his tremulous wife that, like her mother before her, she is losing her mind, even to the point of persuading her that she is "imagining" the gas light in the house is dimming.
From the beginning, Bella is clearly on edge, and the stern reproaches from her overbearing husband (who openly flirts with the servants) make matters worse. What bothers Bella the most, however, is Jack's secret and unexplained disappearances from the house, which increases her anxiety.
Mr. Manningham’s cruel attitude and insidious psychological maddening of his wife seem almost unendurable at times. She is so unsure of herself that she assumes her husband must be right about her growing “weak mindedness.” It is necessary to remember that this play is set in England in 1880, when independent women were few and far between, and didn’t have the ability to make the kind of choices that might free them of the “Mr. Manninghams” of the world. In that Victorian era, women were frequently viewed as subject to “hysteria,” so the notion that an evil husband could orchestrate this fate for Bella was a very real threat.
Bella, uncertain, insecure, tormented…is convincingly helpless and upset for much of the play until circumstances offer her a different opportunity. Her impressive range of emotions - disbelief, panic, joy and fear – identified and unified the audience with her plight. And Kwon, in his theatrical debut, makes a surprisingly heinous villain. He combines a suave, hardhearted arrogance together with a creepy menace to make the audience root against him, but he’s never so two-dimensional that you feel he’s about to become caricatured. He withholds, manipulates, deliberately misplaces items which he accuses her of stealing, and virtually imprisons her in their dank house, but never raises a hand to her. The effect of his accusations and paternalistic put-downs, however, holds as much sting as any slap. And in deceptive gesture, he gives the pretense of being solicitous about her health to her and others, which brings some ambiguity to his character, making his actions more of a puzzle for the audience.
Fortunately, the increasingly distraught and desperate Bella has a couple of supporters in her corner. These are the beautifully stoic servant Elizabeth (double cast with Nickola Orr "Secret in the Wings," "Kiss Me Kate," and Karina Hunt "Legally Blonde," "Cinderella") who manages to show concern for her mistress without stepping out of bounds, and, more importantly, a retired Scotland Yard detective aptly named Rough (Timothy Coleman, "Cinderella," "Secret in the Wings") who has taken a long-standing interest in the intriguing Manningham home. He appears more than a third of the way in, but brings a good-humored life force with his handy pocket flask and his Columbo-style approach that fills the negative void.
Paying a surprise visit to the frightened and put-upon Mrs. Manningham, the affable constable drops in when the husband leaves one foggy evening. And as it turns out, we find that Sergeant Rough knows a great deal about her dilemma, and even has a theory as to Mr. Manningham’s nefarious motives. Having a slightly obsessive enthusiasm for solving the 15-year old case, he doles out the many secrets behind her suffocating marriage, explaining that the apartment above was once occupied by a wealthy woman who was murdered for her jewels, but the murderer never caught or the jewels found. So, when Mr. Manningham covertly goes to the dead woman’s flat every evening to search for the jewels, and lights several of the gaslights, it dims the whole building.
Two other gem players in the cast share the role of the saucy and insolent Nancy, the other servant in the house: Brittany Fisheli (“Secret in the Wings,” “Light in the Library”) and Diana Butler (“Cinderella,” “30 Plays in 60 Minutes”). Both are delightful comedic actresses, as they move the character from barely concealed resentment and jealousy of the mistress of the house to loud and lusty directness with her handsome employer. Ms. Fisheli and Butler helps ground the play and emphasizes the threat with the more senior and serious Elizabeth.
Under Director Hillman’s taut direction, the edginess and trepidation builds until the end, even though the audience is clued in to what is going on and why. The play is constructed to emanate dramatic tension, and manages to hold on to the core of that intangible thing that makes for good theater, remaining a first-rate suspense drama. Luckily, Hillman has a talented cast at his disposal that easily helps makes that happen.
Produced by Michael Despars, Directors Hillman, along with Student Director Emily McCardell has rehearsed their cast well. Infirmary Nurses are played by Savannah Worrell, Addison Waugh, Emily Laguna and Emma Peterson.
“Angel Street” is performed with very little pomp and circumstance in three acts with all the action taking place within the same day and night. Lighting is supervised by Calvin Tate and Set is Tate Heinle. Sound is handled by Tim Coleman and Adam Rooney, Hair and Makeup by Abigail Lange and Costumes by Beverly Shirk and Ashley Shilts.
Basically it’s blackbox theatre in the round, in the middle of a room, but because of the close proximity, you are pulled into the scene with closer perspective of the action, not just as a spectator, but as one of the cast. The show runs October 25, 26, and 27 at 7 pm and October 27 at 1 pm in the Black Box Theatre. Today’s performance is the last one. Tickets are $8.00 pre-sale and $15.00 at the door. “Angel Street” - If you like melodrama, then this is the show for you.
National Youth Arts