SAN DIEGO — Five minutes more of watching Jack Manningham torment his wife in Patrick Hamilton's suspense thriller "Gaslight," and Thursday's opening night audience at the Bowery Theatre might have leaped to her rescue. Such is the level of total audience absorption being created by the play's gifted cast and designers.
Actress Robyn Hunt misses not a flicker of Bella Manningham's anguish, confusion, fear--madness, perhaps--trapping our imaginations from the very first moment with her exquisitely expressive eyes.
As we learn in methodical revelations of plot, if the poor young woman is indeed losing her sanity, it is being forced from her by a criminally diabolical husband, for reasons best left unrevealed.
J. S. Pearson--also identified in the program as director Steve Pearson--has the suavely evil Jack Manningham in his actor's pocket from the moment the yellowed-gas lighting glows brighter and we see him feigning sleep in an armchair, robed in a red satin dressing gown. We hate him even before he opens his mouth, as if Pearson had ejected an ugly smog about his person that tipped us off.
The play, which many will remember from its 1939 ("Angel Street") and 1943 film versions, has every potential of veering off into ludicrous melodrama. The plot relies heavily on the subservient role women assumed during the Victorian era, in which the story is set.
But Pearson has pulled a strong thread of suspense from the dated script, with more than a little help from Hunt's remarkable performance.
Poised like a frightened rabbit ready to flee--if only she had somewhere to go--Hunt makes us forget what year it is, forget that the figured Oriental carpets and patterned wallpaper, the dimming gaslights and murderous husband sneaking about upstairs are not real. She makes her complete obedience to this madman--unthinkable outside the theater--totally acceptable, simply by the sincerity of her portrayal.
There are not enough adjectives to urge those who appreciate such artistry to the Bowery's door.
Scenic designer Erik Hanson, costumer Ingrid Helton and lighting designer Sean La Motte have combined their best efforts into a rich Victorian feeling that extends from the room's cloying floral patterns to Bella's sweeping skirt and the eerie lighting that echoes the instability of Bella's mind.
Lawrence Czoka's masterful sound design stretches the tension further, with Ree Archer's mournful cello easing in under the action, now swelling, then fading--all done without a hint of excess.
Fine acting support comes from Frederick Edmund as the self-assured detective, Rough. Although the script demands most of its exposition from him, Edmund carries it off with maddeningly meticulous aplomb, a needed measure of humor, and just enough compassion to make the character genuine.
Terry Eaton as Elizabeth and Marsee Skidmore as Nancy add their own abundant talents as the two maids, one devoted and solicitous, the other impertinently aggressive.
While he certainly cannot be faulted for his skill with Hamilton's script, Pearson has made some unusual staging choices. For instance, he keeps his own back to the audience during the lengthy, climactic scene in which his character's devilry is confronted, denying us the long-wished-for opportunity to see the look on the trapped villain's face.
The technique is used frequently in confrontation scenes, the effect being to focus attention on the speaker, as if they alone were standing in a pool of light. Frustrating at first, it does add interest to scenes perhaps too expected by an audience familiar with the genre.
If anyone mentioned to Hunt or Pearson that contemporary viewers might not accept this aged melodrama, if anyone suggested the risk they were taking with their new jobs as associate artistic director (Hunt) and resident artist (Pearson) at the Bowery, the two thankfully ignored such advice.
They've accomplished a showcase production, making the best of everything the Bowery has to offer in both space and production staff. It may be the theater's intimacy, in fact, that makes this "Gaslight" so gripping, with Hunt and Pearson's performances laid in our laps like fascinating trinkets with secret locks and hidden treasures.
We may not be able to discover how they've worked their magic, but it's undeniable the two have created a richly engrossing, exciting evening of theater for their new employers. Our best action would be to take advantage--and hope for more from this dynamic collaboration.
"GASLIGHT" By Patrick Hamilton. Directed by Steve Pearson. Scenic design, Erik Hanson. Costumes, Ingrid Helton. Lighting, Sean La Motte. Sound, Lawrence Czoka. Cello, Ree Archer. With Robyn Hunt, J.S. Pearson, Marsee Skidmore, Terry Eaton, Frederick Edmund, George Elwers and Wil Rumble. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., through Feb. 9 at The Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St.