Ashlee LaPine in Gaslight (Brian Paulette)
In recent years, the term “gaslighting” has come to be fully embedded in our cultural lexicon. The term—which describes an abuse tactic of working to convince a victim that their perception of reality is inaccurate and unreliable—stems from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play by the same name. It’s as impressive as it is distressing that 85 years after it was written, the play—currently onstage at Kansas City Actors Theatre—remains as timely as ever.
Gaslight (Angel Street) tells the story of Bella (Ashlee LaPine), who is being methodically driven mad by her husband Jack (Matthew J. Williamson). Through regular small acts of cruelty, hiding personal and household objects and telling Bella she is responsible, Jack attacks Bella’s confidence in her own mind. Unlike George Cukor’s 1944 film version starring Ingrid Bergman (not the first film adaptation but likely the one most viewers are familiar with), Hamilton’s play opens with Bella many months into Jack’s mind games, her anxiety already running at a full 10.
It’s a jarring way to begin a play but does succeed in immediately thrusting us into Bella’s tormented mind. Emotions run high and exposition is heavy in Hamilton’s script, and it is a testament to the cast and director Cinnamon Schultz that this psychological drama, verging on melodrama, feels grounded and gripping throughout. The entire cast earnestly embraces their archetypes and the 85-year-old play feels very much of its time, but the effect is elegantly vintage rather than dated.
The entire cast is commendable but as Bella, LaPine is remarkable. As mentioned, her torment is overwhelming from the play’s first moments, to the extent that she is unable to process even a single piece of good news and being tasked with a simple decision is debilitating. Already at maximum capacity, her hysteria has nowhere to go, no room to increase. (And Jon Robertson’s haunting, even menacing sound design and orchestral compositions make sure the tension never drops throughout.) Instead, LaPine manages to find depths of nuance within that frenzy, radiating pure tension nonstop but with subtle shifts between places of fear, sorrow, and exhaustion.
These nuances are especially striking when her unabashedly cruel husband steps out and another overbearing man enters. Inspector Rough, who has been on the unsolved murder case central to Bella’s torment for years, is ostensibly the woman’s savior. He is dedicated to solving the case that would result in Bella being freed from her torment, but really, her relief is only a happy side effect of his mission. And while his intentions are noble, as he comes barrelling into Bella’s home he is just another man steamrolling her, controlling her, dismissing her fears, and refusing to listen to her pleas. That John Resenhouse plays the role with such funny, affable, at times almost bumbling charm only makes his heedless dominance that much more upsetting. Like so much else in this play, it is deeply indicative of the misogyny of the time, and also distressingly relatable today.
Many theatergoers are sure to find KCAT’s Gaslight (Angel Street) to be an energetic, enjoyable classic mystery romp. Others will find a disturbing reflection on harrowing emotional abuse (and just how little has changed in nearly a century in how we are able to spot that abuse and protect and support victims). I don’t imagine either experience is more or less fulfilling than the other—rather, it’s simply remarkable when a play can be so many different things to audiences at once.
“Gaslight (Angel Street),” a production of Kansas City Actors Theatre, runs through February 4 at City Stage, on the lower level of Union Station, 30 W Pershing Rd, Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit www.kcactors.org.