Written in 1938, it became the prototype for contemporary psychological drama: a thriller without explicit violence in which the villain preys upon his victim's mental state, driving her slowly into madness for his own sadistic pleasure. It's the source of the expression "gaslighting" -- convincing someone that what they can plainly see isn't there, or what they believe to be absolutely true (mainly about themselves) is false. If only the play had held up as well as the terminology.
We join the Manninghams, Mr. (Charles Lanyer) and Mrs. (Julie Boyd), as they languish in their parlor (a rangy Victorian set designed by J.B. Wilson) on a foggy London afternoon. The odd arrangement of the furniture should hint at what's to come: The davenport has its back to the fireplace so it can face us and the fourth wall. So much for verisimilitude, I guess.
Mr. Manningham wakes from his nap and insists that his dithering wife ring for the maid to put coals on the fire rather than do it herself. He's a proper Victorian gentleman, and he will be obeyed. Gradually we learn that she has been "ill," and that he punishes her for supposed mental lapses by locking her away in her room for days at a time. She is terrified that she's inherited the madness her mother died of at her age, so she blubbers and grovels and begs him to be kind. (Wait -- I know what you're thinking -- her mother died of madness? Believe me, I sympathize. But if we start looking too closely at this point, we'll never get through this.)
He relents and turns into the soul of benevolence right before our eyes by promising to take her to the theater. (Maybe Gaslight is playing.) She is so delighted she frolics and trills and giggles like a -- gulp -- lunatic. But then he sees it: a gap on the wall where a picture is meant to hang. He insists she put it back at once. Naturally, she has no idea where it is, but he manages to convince her that she took it down in what we would call a blackout. Off he goes then, in a huff, to his "club," that all-purpose citadel of Victorian male society, leaving the little Mrs. to her vapors. Ho-hum, woe is she -- it's the story of her life.
But! (And here's where the excitement starts, folks.) Tonight something actually happens! As she is passing out from some potion she's drunk, the good maid, Elizabeth (played by the marvelous Sharon Lockwood, whose talents are squandered here) -- as opposed to the bad maid, Nancy (Mollie Stickney), a home-wrecker in more ways than one (more on that later) -- announces that a gentleman has arrived to see her. Ta-da! It's Inspector Rough (wonderful William Paterson), or so he claims. He never shows her any kind of identification, but there I go again: picky, picky.
He relates a fantastic story about an unsolved murder of 15 years ago, in which a thief burgled an old lady's house, looking for her famous collection of rubies. The murderer was never caught, and the jewels were never found. He believes (for no reason I could account for, but what do I know -- if it had been up to me, on the strength of the evidence, poor Mrs. Manningham might still be blathering her life away) that the thief couldn't find the booty either and continues to search for it. But, you ask, as did the hand-wringing Mrs., what has that to do with the Manninghams? Well! I'll tell you! The old lady was murdered in this very house.
Naturally, Mrs. Manningham is able to fill in some gaps for the inspector. Such as that her husband leaves her alone every night. That she hears ghostly footsteps overhead, on the top floor where she has been forbidden to go. That -- and here's where the scenic effects (and lighting by Peter Maradudin) are truly excellent -- the gaslights dim in the house when the footsteps start, as though someone has lit another lamp and reduced gas pressure. It doesn't take much for the inspector to convince her that the ghost upstairs is really her husband. Except he's not really her husband. He's the notorious Sidney Power, wanted for the murder of the old lady. Et cetera, et cetera.
I'll admit there were some wonderful, if unplanned, moments opening night. Such as when the saucy maid, Nancy, breaks the sliding drawing-room door and ad-libs, "Sorry about the door, Sir," and Mr. Manningham-the-control-freak counters, genially, "That's all right, Nancy." Or when Nancy drops a piece of china and breaks it, which no one comments on. Or later, when she seems to have a better hold on things, she responds to his lascivious invitation and jumps him. There's nothing wrong with Mollie Stickney's performance, per se, but it sure makes you think back on the young Angela Lansbury (who played Nancy in the movie) with great nostalgic fondness.
As the hapless Mrs. Manningham, Julie Boyd reminds me of Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. No, wait. Not Olivia de Havilland herself, but Carol Burnett's takeoff on Olivia de Havilland. That is, until Mrs. Manningham is told of a long-lost cousin's affectionate regard -- "They wanted me back!!"-- when she reminded me of Sally ("You really like me!") Field. I hear that Boyd is a marvelous actor. I hope we get to see her in something else sometime.
Charles Lanyer gives Mr. Manningham what might be called a good effort, but Charles Boyer he is not.
William Paterson all but steals the show with his warm and well-grounded Inspector Rough. With the exception of Sharon Lockwood, who also manages to survive the wretched script, he seems to be the only actor onstage who is not uncomfortable and who does not feel compelled to comment on the play with an over-the-top performance.
I'm not sure what director Takazauckas intended here. He seems to have found it impossible (understandably) to stage this as a serious thriller; yet pushing the actors to make ridiculous what is already foolish doesn't seem like the way to go either. I kept harking back to one of Mrs. Manningham's early lines: "Oh, if only I could get out of myself!" Maybe that was his wish as well.
Gaslight runs through Jan. 28 at the Stage Door Theatre in S.F.; call 749-2228.