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PTC’s ‘Gaslight’ lights up the stage

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PTC’s ‘Gaslight’ lights up the stage (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2019)

BANGOR – All is not as it seems on the stage of the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre Company is presenting “Gaslight,” the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. This Victorian Era-set melodrama is directed by Bari Newport; the show runs through November 3. It’s a thrilling tale of deceit, a story where not even the evidence of one’s own eyes can be trusted.

This play – and the subsequent film adaptations – led to the inception of the term “gaslight,” defined by Merriam-Wesbter as follows: “To attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation.”

In this story, a woman whose grip on the reality of the world around her is steadily crumbling must confront the fact that there’s far more to her descent into madness than she could ever have imagined. She’s left with no idea who to trust and forced to come to terms with the notion that there are those close to her who may have sinister motives.

PTC is offering up some full-on back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead melodrama, with all the shadowy sumptuousness and flamboyant flourishes that that entails. It is big and broad and overtly theatrical, easily overcoming a somewhat-dated script with rich production values and wonderfully toothsome performances.

In 1880s London, Mrs. Bella Manningham (Winslow Corbett) is living in a richly appointed house on Angel Street with her husband Jack (Robin Bloodworth). They’ve been here for the past six months, settling into their new accommodations.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Manningham is having some … troubles. According to her husband, she has been deliberately moving and misplacing things, only to forget what she has done. Bella, having no memory of these actions, is left to wonder at what else she might be forgetting. Her husband’s concern is shared by the servants as well – stately housekeeper Elizabeth (Kim Meyerdierks) and saucy young maid Nancy (Elisabeth Budd). Bella’s family history of mental illness – her mother was committed to an asylum – weighs heavily upon her as she wonders at what is happening.

And then there are the mysterious noises coming from the unoccupied upper floor of the house – creaks and groans that sound like footsteps, all accompanied by the unprompted dimming of the house’s gaslights.

Yet another act of antagonistic forgetfulness leaves Jack threatening his wife with confinement to her room, or worse – to an asylum. But when he takes his leave that evening, a visitor arrives for Bella immediately after. Rough (Dennis Price) is a former police detective who has some ideas of his own about what is happening in this house – and what happened there many years before.

Bella is left to wonder what is real and what is not. Is she mad? Are the things that Jack has said true? Or Detective Rough? What is happening in that house? And why?

Shows like “Gaslight” are great fun; they’re a different kind of theatrical experience. This play is about broad gestures and broader characters; it’s about performative awareness. This isn’t about nuance or naturalism; instead, it’s a celebration of the artifice of it all. Melodrama is about black and white, about heroes and villains – this show handles all the demarcation for you. There is little doubt, from the moment we meet each character, with regard to who we should cheer and at whom we should hiss.

It should be said that the eight-decades-old script hasn’t aged particularly well; at times, it feels a bit overstuffed and a little dusty. But the foundation for a great time at the theater is still there – a foundation that director Newport and company have done an admirable job building atop.

One of the big surprises was the pacing. Despite the rather slow progress of the narrative, Newport finds ways to keep the energy levels high; she and her actors inject an urgency into the proceedings that is welcome. Even during expository stretches – stretches that could easily have bogged things down – that urgency keeps the audience on their toes. Despite a large playing space that only rarely saw more than two people occupy it at once, the stage never felt empty, thanks to the engaged choices being made.

The actors more than hold up their end of the bargain. Corbett is a perpetual emotion machine, moods swinging wildly as she shrieks and moans and whispers her way along; her desperation and fear are palpable. It’s the exact sort of mania necessary for this part to work. Bloodworth has turned the smugness all the way up and snapped off the dial; his booming voice alternately seductive and sinister. His physical presence is outsized; it lingers even after he leaves the stage. Price is a delight as the old detective; in his capable hands, Rough manages to appear both bumbling and competent. There’s a goofball charm at work here that is irresistible. Budd’s Nancy is perfectly shameless, a bold schemer, while Meyerdierks is suitably harried as the put-upon Elizabeth.

Chez Cherry’s set marries form and function beautifully; it has been a long time since a PTC set blended so seamlessly into its Opera House surroundings. The design is a great fit for both the show and the space. Lighting designer Scout Hough has some fun with this one; keep an eye on how the overall look changes with each lit and/or extinguished gaslight. Watch the shadows. Kevin Koski embraced the period with his costume design, creating a lovely elegance. Sean McGinley’s sound design provides the sort of incidental sound that you won’t notice that you’re noticing, while Meredith Perry’s prop design gives us the finishing touches.

For a play like “Gaslight” to be successful, everyone has to be on the same page. The notion of theatricality needs to be embraced; these days, melodrama demands metatextuality. That’s what PTC gives us here – broad, bold performances and lavish production values. Beautiful scenery upon which the actors are unafraid to chew. It’s atmospheric and self-aware, a well-executed piece of theatre.

In short, you’d be mad to miss out.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 October 2019 13:57

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