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‘Gaslight’ another winning play at Millbrook

By KAREN ELIAS

Just as I was thinking that Millbrook couldn’t possibly continue its current winning streak, “Gaslight” comes along!

The play, officially known as “Gaslight (Angel Street),” is a psychological thriller based on the play by Patrick Hamilton which opened in London in 1938. In its later American incarnation, it lasted for 1,295 performances, making it one of the longest running non-musicals ever to appear on Broadway.

After the opening performance at Friday night’s cabaret, I asked the man sitting at my table for a spontaneous critique, and he summed up the Millbrook production of this taut, compelling thriller in one word: “Superb!” I completely agree.

Cade Sikora establishes the mood with an elegantly appointed set that beautifully captures the Victorian atmosphere of 1880, with its ornate wallpaper, fireplace with coal scuttle, well-placed antimacassars, and requisite gaslight wall sconces. The gaslights, of course, play a prominent role in the play, their alternate brightening and dimming signaling not only changes in mood but also important clues to the sinister goings-on in the rest of the house.

Once the play begins and it becomes clear that this house on Angel Street is being turned into a trap, the bell-pull on its long cord takes on heightened significance. Can it really sound the alarm for help – or will it merely summon additional malevolent forces waiting for their chance to tighten the psychological noose?

It might seem at first that Bella Manningham, the play’s protagonist, is merely a product of Victorian strictures on women; married women, for example, were required to give over their rights as independent entities to their husbands, who assumed complete control.

When Bella responds with childish delight to her husband’s offer to take her out to the theatre, her absolute dependence on him becomes clear. But Jack Manningham is intent on a lot more than reducing his wife to the status of a child. He intends to convince her that, like her mother before her, she is going mad.

We look on in dismay at Bella’s growing frustration and helplessness as she finds herself victimized by Jack’s insidious tricks, forced to provide evidence of her own sanity – and unable to furnish it. The term “gaslighting” – defined as using false information, as a form of psychological abuse, to instill doubt about someone’s memory and perceptions–originated with this play.

The growing suspense requires rapid back-and-forth interplay between husband and wife, and Aaron White and Melody Ladd, who play the Manninghams, give outstanding performances as a couple locked in a death-grip that grows increasingly more lethal as the play goes on. Every one of Jack’s menacing verbal assaults, delivered with infuriating suavity and arrogance, is met in turn by Bella’s growing desperation and hysteria as she struggles with the realization that her only apparent source of strength and safety is someone who is out to destroy her.

Into this claustrophobic setting steps the character of Sgt. Rough like a breath of fresh air. Rough, played brilliantly by Frank Franconeri, offers Bella much more than a rational explanation for her husband’s strange behavior. He offers kindness, confidence, the consolations of well-aged whiskey, and a playful, easy assurance that – as long as she trusts him – all will be well.

Franconeri inhabits this character as though it were made for him, his every gesture and facial expression seeming to emanate entirely naturally from the impish trickster happily at work on this case. We are delighted every time he sets foot on the stage.

The play’s ending is unexpected. I won’t give it away. But notice that, just before Rough appears on the scene, Bella takes a draught of her medicinal “powders,” undoubtedly meant to sedate her jangled nerves. Has she dreamt him up? Was this all a figment of her imagination? The seeds of doubt have been planted, even with the audience. The gaslights dim and brighten. Come see for yourself what they reveal.

And just a word or two about Nancy and Elizabeth, the servants at the house.

Megan Ghorashy, as Nancy, does an excellent job of supplying the flirtatious corrosion that further erodes Bella’s confidence. And Bonnie Farmer, as Elizabeth, gives a subtle performance that reveals her as an ostensibly loyal servant able at the same time to find opportunities for resistance.

“Gaslight” is a masterpiece of suspense. The acting is faultless. This play is not to be missed.

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Karen Elias lives in Swissdale. She taught English for more than 30 years, most recently at Lock Haven University and Penn College.

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