Cincinnati Shakespeare’s newest world premiere, Gaslight, is a captivating psychological thriller. Transforming the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton (and the acclaimed 1940 movie of the same name), playwright Steven Dietz has crafted a revealing look at power dynamics of a marriage and how far someone would go for personal gain.
First, be warned, there are a number of unpleasant and themes in this well performed show. It presents psychological abuse. However, the other theme that may be unbelievable to a younger audience is that during the late 1800’s, it was perfectly acceptable to dispose of your wife into an asylum for any number of reasons. Men had all the power; women had no rights. “According to 19th century psychiatry, female independence was madness,” writes Kate Moore (author of Radium Girls), in The Woman They Could Not Silence. Women could be confined to an insane asylum by any number of reasons, from speaking their minds to changing behaviors during menopause. A man could arrange his wife’s committal simply “by the request of the husband” and specifically “without the evidence of insanity required in other cases.”
That said, this is a show that will engage your brain–especially if you have never seen the movie and do not know what comes next.
The Plot of Gaslight
The show opens with Jack (Tom Coiner) and Bella ( Kristin Yancy), getting ready for tea. As this domestic scene slowly reveals, all is not bliss. He insists that she is ill, going mad. He complains she treats the servants as equals. She says she is well, and demonstrates she is bright and logical in finding a painting he said she hid. He storms off. Then a police detective insists on meeting Bella (she mentions it is the first time she has ever had anyone else in that room, she has been so isolated by Jack). Inspector Rough relays some disturbing news and sets the plot in motion. (Anything more may reveal too much.)
Jim Hopkins Steals the Show
Jim Hopkins is the highlight of this show. His Inspector Rough (in his “saucy shirt”) needs a sequel–we want more. We also want more from the domestics, Elizabeth (Karen McDonald) and Nancy (Candice Handy) as they balance the line between loyalty and truth.
Samantha Reno designed the handsome Victorian drawing room where the action is set. The large gaslights appropriately shine and dim, as does the rest of the lighting (Laura Glover) to set mood and focus. The home is lush and impressive, and the up center frosted french doors effectively heighten the stakes. As the show begins one appreciates the surround sound (Robert Carlton Stimmel) with chimes and subtle music throughout. Rainy Edwards has created and chosen some of the most interesting clothing–from Rough’s saucy shirt to Jack’s Carrick coat and voluminous wardrobe, and Bella’s gorgeous wrapper.
Director Courtney Sale keeps you on the edge of your seat. It takes a while to ramp up, but once it is going, this 95-minute show breezes by. Dietz’s script is both thriller and dark comedy, both modern and historical. The storytelling really shines as the audiences’ investment in the outcome grows, (yes, there will be audible reactions to Jack’s second act fireplace treachery).
Tickets for Gaslight
Engage your brain, and follow this well-told tale of deceit, desolation and desperation. Gaslight runs through September 24. Get your tickets online at the Cincy Shakes Box Office or by calling (513)381-2273.