A creative work whose title becomes a part of the common cultural vocabulary must strike a resonant chord in our social and psychological worlds, and the indomitable Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) polished, intelligent production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Gaslight presents a vibrant case in point. Our society has recently been struggling to come to terms with the complex psychological ramifications and destructive effects of bullying. “Gaslighting” — a power play which involves manipulating the victim into doubting his or her memory and perceptions — is certainly one of the most insidious forms of that kind of psychological abuse. Unsurprisingly, despite a certain quaint predictability and Victorian-style domestic familiarity, this classic melodrama maintains its power to engage and intrigue audiences almost 75 years after its original production.
Most famous is its 1944 movie version directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut, Gaslight, set in London in the 1880s, is the story of a villainous husband and his calculating emotional and psychological torture of his wife, as he drives her to the brink of insanity.
Under the guise of the most caring and kindly paternalism in this traditional Victorian upper-middle class household, he deceives her into believing that she is misplacing valuable objects, neglecting her responsibilities as dutiful wife, and gradually losing her mind in forgetfulness. One of his ruses that make his wife question her senses and sanity is his clandestine raising and lowering of the gas lamps that give the play its title and light the couple’s Victorian living room. The Victorian world and male-dominated marriages of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) come to mind, as does the victimized wife consigned to a 1860s mental institution in Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard (2007).
The PST cast of five principals, all undergraduates or recent college graduates, under the direction of Princeton English and theater professor R.N. Sandberg, is excellent — credible and engaging in making significant character stretches to portray this curious assemblage of characters from a distant world.
In the central Ingrid Bergman role of the beleaguered wife Bella, Sarah Paton is convincing and sympathetic. She portrays a fluctuating fragility that shifts rapidly and credibly from happiness in response to her husband’s feigned affections to desperation and manic hysteria in the face of her fears and desperation in confronting what she is led to believe is her declining mental state. This overly dependent, neurotic stereotype of a Victorian wife is certainly a ripe subject for feminist scrutiny, as is her misogynist husband, though suspense and melodrama are Mr. Hamilton’s priorities rather than social commentary here.
Evan Thompson as Jack Manningham takes on the villain’s role with spirit and poise. His proud posture, thinly veiled insincerity, roguish demeanor, sexist commentary, and inappropriately suggestive overtures to the maid (Ariel Sibert) lucidly reveal his duplicity to the audience, if not to his wife, early on in the play. The audience, realizing Jack’s machinations, then identifying with Bella as she first spirals into distress and fear, then gradually begins to realize her husband’s treachery, enjoy watching as husband and wife match wits in mortal combat.
Ms. Sibert’s impertinent Nancy exudes the brazen spirit and style of the saucy, lascivious maid, and Jack’s flirtations with her become part of his psychological abuse of his wife, as the two women compete for his attentions.
As the elderly house servant Elizabeth, Maeve Brady makes an impressive stretch in age and creates a memorable character, watching closely the suspicious actions of her master and the alarming behavior of her mistress and helping in the end to resolve the tangled plot. Andrew Massey’s avuncular, witty, and determined detective contributes irony and dark humor to the proceedings, eventually winning Bella’s trust and allegiance in opposing the treacherous husband and sorting out his complex schemes and actions. Mr. Massey creates a quirky, believable, and likeable three-dimensional character.
Jeffrey Van Velsor, professional local set designer, in collaboration with talented lighting designer Alex Mannix, has successfully created the Manningham’s living room and this ponderous world of Victorian domestic life. In sharp, welcome contrast to the multiple settings of the 1944 movie version, the audience here stays focused in the single, darkly paneled, increasingly claustrophobic room. As the plot develops throughout the evening, the single setting intensifies the suspense and fear that the audience shares with the panicked Bella. “Gaslight” sconces on the wall further enhance the atmosphere and admirably serve the plot.
Mr. Sandberg has directed with skill and careful attention to detail. The action, even the rather long first-act exposition and set-up, moves swiftly, drawing the audience into this eerie world of intrigue and drama. The performers are well rehearsed and communicate the complexities of this tale with clarity and conviction. Ben Schaffer’s expert technical direction and period costuming by Julia Bumke and Ms. Sibert are also on-target and effective.
In commenting on Gaslight, Mr. Hamilton, who wrote several popular psychological dramas and novels in the first half of the twentieth century, once remarked, “It has a sort of genuineness in its very bogusness — it is sincere good fun theater.” Princeton Summer Theater makes the most here of Mr. Hamilton’s fascination with a rich psychological struggle and his fine sensitivity to the playwright’s art of keeping audiences on the edges of their seats.