The Acrosstown Repertory Theatre’s newest production, also known as Gaslight, is a detective thriller about a diabolical husband on a mission to drive his wife to the brink.
Have you ever had another person manipulate you to the point where you began questioning your sanity? The slang term for such mind games is gaslighting.
That type of psychological manipulation is at the heart of Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street, a stage drama that opens this week at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater, 619 S. Main St. (in the Baird Complex).
There is a $5 (cash only) preview performance Thursday night at 8. Opening Night is Friday at 8, with additional performances Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Feb. 25.
Set in Victorian London, Angel Street (known originally as Gaslight and later made into a movie by that title) follows Jack and Bella Manningham, a young couple living a seemingly normal life — except that Jack is slowly torturing his unsuspecting wife to death. In other words, gaslighting her.
“It’s a very sophisticated form of manipulation — it makes the victim question their own reality,” said Laura Jackson, who is directing Angel Street. “The sad thing is, this kind of thing happens all the time.”
It’s kind of a twisted Valentine’s Day story.”
— Laura Jackson, director
Jackson, who most recently directed These Shining Lives at the ART, said she was drawn to the play after reading an article about gaslighting.
“The play has a lot of fun elements — suspense, a jewel theft, a detective story, love gone wrong, an unsolved murder,” Jackson said. “It’s a drama, but we’ve worked hard to find all the funny spots. It’s kind of a twisted Valentine’s Day story.”
Justin Clement, a newcomer to the local theater scene, plays the manipulative Mr. Manningham. He said he relishes the role.
“He’s extremely charming and fancies himself as an actor, yet a con man,” said Clement, who auditioned for the role only a few days after moving to Gainesville from Chicago, where he managed a Starbucks and practiced improv.
“Jack will charm your pants off and then take advantage of you. It’s literally the most fun role I’ve ever played.”
Clement, who grew up in Sarasota, once lived in Gainesville for a year while attending Santa Fe College. During that time, he appeared in a couple of performances at UF, including Anything Goes.
While living in Chicago for 10 years, Clement said he was in a marriage that felt to him like gaslighting.
“Being in this play is the ultimate therapy!” he said.
Anne Rupp, a familiar face at the Gainesville Community Playhouse, is making her Acrosstown acting debut as the tortured Mrs. Manningham.
“I equate the role to the frog that is being slowly cooked and, as the water temperature rises, doesn’t realize it’s being boiled to death,” Rupp said. “She has all this blind trust and faith in this man who doesn’t have her best interests at heart.”
Rupp was assistant director for No Exit, which played at the ART in January. In recent years, she has appeared onstage in Mary Poppins, Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof at the GCP and in Blind Intuition at the High Springs Playhouse.
Although Angel Street was written 80 years ago, Rupp said the play’s theme is topical and relatable.
“Originally, I didn’t think I had anything in common with this woman,” she said. “Then the more I got into it, the more I realized this [gaslighting] has happened to me before.”
Then Rupp added: “There are women who can just as easily manipulate a man.”
Rupp said she likes how Mrs. Manningham doesn’t accept being a victim of her husband’s abusive behavior.
“It’s like her training wheels come off,” she said. “She doesn’t quite know how to ride a bicycle, but she’s gonna try.”
Helping Mrs. Manningham out is Detective Rough, played by Acrosstown veteran actor Shamrock McShane. Rough is trying to solve a cold-case murder that involved a jewel theft, and all roads lead to the Manningham home on Angel Street.
“It’s a delight,” said McShane, who played in the ART’s Trailer Park Elegy last fall. “This play [Angel Street] is so well written. I don’t know what you’d call the way [Hamilton] constructed the plot and scenes — maybe dramatic tropes. He ratchets up the tension moment by moment, almost like a symphony.”
McShane shaved off his trademark white beard and grew a mustache to play the role of Rough, who is a mix of Sherlock Holmes and Colombo.
“I’m the detective. I just want to solve the crime,” McShane said.
Rounding out the cast are Jan Cohen as Elizabeth, the Manningham’s loyal and observant cook, and Ashlyn Busscher as Nancy, the household’s saucy, cheeky maid.
Cohen recently represented the Actors’ Warehouse in Monaco, where she and three others produced Tshepang for an international audience in the Mondial du Théâtre. Brook performed as a phantom in the ART’s Rocky Horror Show.
Acrosstown regulars might be intrigued by the Angel Street set designed by Jackson’s husband, Michael Presley Bobbitt. He has enlarged the stage area by removing a sheet-rock wall to expose a brick wall that was part of the original Baird Hardware Building constructed in the 1890s — the same time period that Angel Street takes place.
Also, to give the Victorian parlor authenticity, the set is illuminated by a gas lamp and a pair of gaslights.
Transported back in time, Angel Street audiences will never know what happened to them. Talk about gaslighting!
— Noel Leroux
Angel Street (Gaslight)
Acrosstown Repertory Theatre
619 S. Main St.
(in the Historic Baird Center)
Gainesville, FL 32601
Tickets: $15 ($13 for students and seniors)
Performances: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Feb. 25.
For further info, visit the Acrosstown website.