A cruel sociopath slowly drives his wife insane and her only hope for escape lies in an eccentric detective obsessed with solving an open case from early in his career. This is Angel Street and it is currently playing at Brownville Village Theatre.
I had heard of this story under its more famous name of Gaslight, but this was my first time seeing it in any medium and I had really been missing out on something special. Patrick Hamilton wrote a tight, taut thriller that had me hooked from start to finish. Hamilton has a grand gift for words and knows how to use them to build mood, tension, intrigue, and emotion. This play is completely dialogue driven, but Hamilton’s skill in plotting had me feeling as if I had run a marathon by the time it was all said and done.
Now a play needs more than good words to sell it. It also needs fantastic acting and direction to unlock the full potential of those words and this play has all of that and so much more.
Mitch Bean’s direction is spot on. He understands the many twists and turns of the play’s mazelike plot and knows how to build and resolve the play’s many intense scenes. Some of his finest moments were the final confrontations between Mr. Manningham and Detective Rough and Mr. and Mrs. Manningham. The Manningham/Rough scene is particularly gripping and is the verbal equivalent of a savage fistfight with the way the two men continue circling each other and fling words at each other like knives. Bean has also coached his entire cast to sterling performances with nary a weak link among them.
Bella Walker and Lucy Haarmann are very strong in the smaller roles of household servants. As Elizabeth, Haarmann is very loyal to her mistress and is actually the character that first leads Mrs. Manningham to her first steps on her road to freedom. Walker is very smug and saucy as Nancy, a servant who acts like and has ambitions to be the mistress of the house.
I have to admit that when I first saw Benjamin Salazar, I thought he was a little young for the role of Mr. Manningham, but, the second he opened his mouth, I completely bought into the illusion. Salazar has a rich and powerful voice that belies his youth and is suited for the evil Manningham. And, believe me, evil is defined by this man. Though he has the manners of a gentleman, Manningham is a cruel, vicious monster. Salazar knows how to use Manningham’s words like a weapon as he constantly pummels his wife emotionally and even teases her with occasional bursts of kindness. Salazar plays Manningham with an uber controlled menace and his ramrod posture makes Manningham seem like a cocked gun threatening to go off at any moment. And that control is crucial as it makes his explosive moments of anger and violence truly frightening as the play surges to its conclusion.
Trevor Comstock is a delight as Detective Rough. Comstock’s take on Rough reminded me of Jim Hutton’s interpretation of the fictional detective, Ellery Queen, as he seemed to be a bit of an absent-minded genius. He clearly listens to Mrs. Manningham as he questions her about her current situation and husband, but his eyes show that he’s thinking ten steps ahead which make his replies seem cryptic, yet they’re not. Comstock brings an indefatigable energy to the character as he warps about the room and you can practically taste his excitement in finally closing the lone open case of his career. Comstock also brings the commanding presence needed to both buoy Mrs. Manningham and cow the steely Mr. Manningham.
Rachel Curtiss brings her all to the role of Mrs. Manningham. This is not an easy role to play due to the massive emotional shifts of the character, but Curtiss nails it to the floor. Curtiss does a good job of vacillating between being nearly broken emotionally and mentally, to a brief burst of happiness, to the wonderment of Rough’s story, to a little gaslighting of her own when she confronts her brute of a husband. Curtiss’ body language is phenomenal as she seems like a spring that has been wound too tight and seems apt to break at any moment.
Mitch Bean has designed a fine upper middle-class house with well to do furniture such as a desk and secretary with fine china. Sara Scheidies’ costumes suit the period of the time especially with the Victorian dress of Mrs. Manningham and the elegant wear and ascots of Mr. Manningham. Trevor Comstock’s usage of lights is one of the best I’ve seen in a show as he uses it to set mood, particularly with the gaslights as the room darkens and lights based on the flow of gas. Benjamin Salazar’s sounds help to enhance the action with the sounds of footsteps being a favorite of mine.
This is a truly intense and gripping night of theatre and I highly recommend seeing it and bringing a friend or loved one to get you through the spooky moments. While this may be my first visit to Brownville Village Theatre, I can guarantee it won’t be my last.
Angel Street plays at Brownville Village Theatre through August 12. Showtimes are 7:30pm on July 16 and 24, and August 4 and 12 and 2pm on July 23 and 31 and August 7. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased at the Box Office, visiting www.brownvillevillagetheatre.com, or calling 402-825-4121. Due to intense scenes and subject matter, this show is not suitable for children. Brownville Village Theatre is located at 222 Water Street in Brownville, NE.