The term “gaslighting” has gotten a lot of play lately, with regard to personal relationships as well as the behavior of public figures. It’s used to describe a form of psychological manipulation or abuse in which a narcissist or sociopath plants seeds of doubt to destabilize the victim, causing them to question themselves, perhaps even their sanity. However, the term isn’t new, and its origins lie in a 1938 play by British playwright Patrick Hamilton, currently on stage at The New Vic Theatre in Kalamazoo.
Part mystery, part thriller, “Gaslight” is a Victorian melodrama, and the action takes place over the course of an evening in the drawing room of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham, a young couple who have been married seven years, and whose relationship is painful to watch. She appears to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown and is desperate for his attention; however, he shames and demeans her for things she can’t remember doing or saying in one breath, and in the next he shamelessly flirts with a smug servant.
When he leaves in a huff after fully berating her, she is visited by a man named Rough who declares himself a detective and raises questions about Mr. Manningham’s potentially sinister past, accusing him of being nothing less than “a criminal maniac,” while also bolstering Mrs. Manningham’s spirits and belief in herself, leading to a satisfying turn.
Though not exactly a classic, the play was adapted for the screen twice in the 1940s, with Mrs. Manningham most memorably played by Ingrid Bergman in George Cukor’s 1944 film, and the success of the production relies heavily on the performances given the very talk-heavy script with not quite as much thrilling action as one might expect.
The cast in Director James Furney’s production at The New Vic is excellent, and the intimate space of the theater heightens the drama’s intensity to wonderful effect. With the audience clustered around small tables right in front of the stage, the feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia are palpable — as we seem to be transported not just into the era, but right into the room — and little moments of humor also easily shine through.
Real-life husband and wife Michael P. Martin and Sarah Lynn Roddis are terrific as Mr. and Mrs. Manningham, and physically interesting in the roles. As she is taller than he and not quite as pale and flimsy as this seemingly pathetic character is written, it enhances the psychological complexities of his abuse. Roddis shows Bella’s inner turmoil and roller-coaster of emotions in big and small ways, ever in command of this fascinating character. Likewise, Martin is utterly sinister, but with wonderful nuance. He’s detestable but never slips into caricature.
Anna Kuhn is delightful as the smug and seductive servant, Nancy, who clearly suffers no fools — especially Mrs. Manningham; Shawn Newton’s Rough is warm but by the books; and Deb Koppers makes more of Elizabeth, the other servant, than is written. At times, she seems to be the only character on stage who clearly sees everything that’s going on.
In addition to directing a terrific cast, Furney opted to set the play in the United States, but kept the fin de siecle period with an evocative set and handsome costumes of the era. And the shifting levels of the gaslights on the walls — as executed by Anna Mundo and Deb Koppers are essential.
It all works beautifully, and the show is not only entertaining, but appropriate. It’s an interesting choice right now to convey how the phenomenon of an inequitable relationship in which one dominates the other to gain more power by making the other question their reality first came to light.
New Vic Theatre
March 29-April 20