Angel Street (titled Gaslight when English audiences first saw it) is a 1938 suspense thriller. The lovingly rendered production at Olney Theatre Center demonstrates why it was successful both as a Broadway play and a motion picture.
While Angel Street may not have the complicated red herrings and twists of plays which followed it, the quality of the Olney production 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 1880s Victorian mansion located in London on Angel Street. We soon learn that the master of the House, Jack Manningham (Jeffries Thais), is trying to persuade his wife Bella (Julie-Ann Elliott) that, like her mother before her, she is losing her mind. That’s not much of a spoiler because as a result of Patrick Hamilton’s play, the phrase “to gaslight” - “to terrify and confuse somebody else to the extent that the victim questions his or her own sanity” – came into common use.
Since we know “whodunnit” the suspense instead comes from two other questions. Why is Jack Manningham trying to have his wife put away? Perhaps so he can then cavort with the beautiful and saucy maid Nancy (Dylan Silver), or does he have another nefarious motive?
The second question is whether Manningham will get away with his plot and either drive Bella mad or have her put away in an asylum. (In Victorian England women were viewed as weak and subject to “hysteria” so the notion that an evil husband could orchestrate this fate for Bella is a very real threat.)
Fortunately, the increasingly distraught and desperate Bella has a couple of supporters in her corner. These are loyal maid Elizabeth (Laura Giannarelli) and, more importantly, a retired Scotland Yard detective aptly named Rough (Alan Wade) who appears suddenly with a long-standing interest in the spooky Manningham home.
To reveal more would be a disservice to the readers, but the tension and suspense build smoothly under the sure hand of director John Going, who works to minimize the leisurely pace of the story.
When there is little mystery as to who the villain is and the nature of his scheme, the success of the production relies increasingly on the actors to make the story work. Fortunately, Going has a talented cast at his disposal.
Julie-Ann Elliott as Bella Manningham is convincingly helpless and upset for much of the play until circumstances offer her a different opportunity. For old movie fans, Ingrid Bergman won her first Academy Award for Best Actress in the 1944 film Gaslight for essentially the same “damsel in distress” role.
Jeffries Thais makes a satisfyingly villain. He combines the suave arrogance of Charles Boyer (who played opposite Bergman in the film) and the creepy menace of Vincent Price (the original star on Broadway). He makes the audience root against him, but he’s never so two-dimensional that you feel he’s about to twirl his moustache.
The real star of the piece is Alan Wade, who enlivens Angel Street immensely with his portrayal of Inspector Rough. He takes full advantage of every comic opportunity while giving this working class hero a cheery and slightly obsessive enthusiasm for solving the case.
Closes July 14, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
A major factor in the ability of the audience to transport itself to Victorian England is the superlative work of the rest of the artistic team. The set, designed by James Wolk and built by the Olney Theatre Center, is an absolutely faithful depiction of a nineteenth century home that is so detailed and beautiful it alone merits applause. Further, the clever use of a scrim and lighting effects allow the second story of James Wolk’s set to be visible when needed.
Liz Covey’s costume design is equally effective. From Bella’s true blue dress complete with bustle to Mr. Manningham’s purple smoking jacket, every touch seems perfect. Ditto for the English accents which are consistent and true to class with the help of dialect coach Nancy Krebs.
Worth noting: Artistic Director Jason Loewith announced pre-show that Angel Street, which was first presented at Olney in 1950, is the 48th play that Going has directed for Olney Theatre Center.
Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton . Directed by John Going . Featuring Craig Allen, Matt Boliek, Julie-Ann Elliott, Laura Giannarelli, Dana Levanovsky, Jeffries Thaiss and Alan Wade. Set design: James Wolk . Lighting design: Dennis Parichy . Sound design: Jeff Dorman . Costume design: Liz Covey . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.