Act II’s “Gaslight” shifts gears and races to the finish

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 10/5/23

The lights wax and wane for no reason. Newlywed Bella hears strange sounds.  “Am I going insane?” she wonders. Sound familiar?

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Act II’s “Gaslight” shifts gears and races to the finish


The lights wax and wane for no reason. Newlywed Bella hears strange sounds.  “Am I going insane?” she wonders. Sound familiar? Act II Playhouse’s production of “Gaslight” is controversial. Using director privilege, Kate Brennan changes core elements and turns Patrick Hamilton's play into a torrid 80-minute show with a feminist twist.

George Cukor's 1944 Hollywood version starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, is an iconic movie everyone has seen. One problem with staging “Gaslight” is you know how this psycho-thriller ends. How do you keep it fresh? Can it say something new?

Director Brennan changes the script significantly. She alters the backstory; she assigns major characters other names, (Paula is now Bella; Gregory is Jack); she gives Laura Mancano new marching orders in playing maid. No longer a cockney hussy, Nancy is now a strong young woman who repels Jack's rapacious advances.   

Scotland Yard Detective Rough is missing in action. In the original, Rough is troubled by the unsolved murder of opera singer Alice. Even in retirement, when the house is re-occupied some 14 years later, he puts it under surveillance and figures out what Gregory (now Jack) is up to. 

The task of rescuing Bella now falls to Elizabeth, an aging maid. Penelope Reed, a Barrymore Lifetime Award-winner, can do little with the role. True, Elizabeth is in a good position to spy on the villain. But with Brennan's whirlwind pace, to corral Bella's terror is like trying to stop water gushing from a broken faucet. 

What is going on here? Why change the script so majorly? Why transform the character of Nancy, ditch Detective Rough, and turn maid Elizabeth into a savior? Why the breakneck, 80-minute pace?

The show does have strong production elements. The Victorian sitting room is opulent with period furniture, (thanks to the scene design of Parris Bradley, and the construction by the Flannel & Hammer Scene Shop). It helps you feel Bella's distress because, fully appointed, it gives your eyes no place to rest.

The set itself is a powerful character; you feel the strength of its rich, dark browns and reds. Lights are used effectively, (Lighting design, Eric Baker), and the ominous sound design by Alex Dakaglou, helps set up a spooky mood.

Curtis Mark Williams is splendid as Jack. In the early going, he is solicitous towards Bella. He seems to accept her memory lapses and pretends to want to protect her.  He promises to take her to the theater, to see a famous actor perform Shakespeare (“Darling, do you want to see the comedies or the tragedies?” he asks.)

Williams is masterful in making his first transition. While embracing Bella, he stares blankly at the wall and freezes up. (“Darling, what is the problem?” Bella asks.) He does not want to say but finally tells her the picture is missing from the wall. Again! Bella pleads for forgiveness. Will Jack still take her to the theater? No, he answers.

Brennan's approach to “Gaslight" gives Williams time to draw out his character, to make you feel his manipulations. In playing Bella, Jessica DalCanton is not so fortunate. DalCanton is convincing as the distressed victim, but the rushed pace does not give her time to overcome gaslighted anguish in a convincing way.

Why the rush? Brennan could use the show's other "character" - the set itself  - to make Bella's transformation plausible: Elizabeth could lead distressed Bella off stage, after a minute or two of creepy stage emptiness with all its sights and sounds. Bella could return in semi-darkness, and through mime alone, we could see her slowly grow composed. A spotlight could show Bella's face settling into the cold anger of an avenging angel.

Such a sequence would only take another five minutes or so of showtime and help make Bella's transformation plausible. The animus of Brennan's script changes, however, is a settled matter. Sure, watching a weeping woman rescued in the arms of a strong man is macho schmaltz we have seen a thousand times., but by making all the women strong in the face of evil, is Brennan trading in one tired trope for another?

Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler. Gaslight will run through Oct 22. Tickets available at 215-654-0200