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Victorian Thrills
By Kathryn Ceceri

Angel Street
By Patrick Hamilton, directed by Philip C. Rice
Curtain Call Theatre, through Feb. 7

It’s almost painful watching the opening scenes of Angel Street, the 1938 play set in Victorian England that became the basis of the 1944 Ingrid Bergman Oscar-winner Gaslight. Jack Manningham is making the most of the power he holds, by law and custom, over his cowering wife, Bella. He forces her to call in “the girl” to throw more coals on the fire, then openly flirts with the lovely young servant while his wife stands mutely by. He tempts Bella with the unexpected promise of a trip to the theater (nothing like a little plug for your profession), then, just as suddenly, takes the treat away when she “misbehaves.” His praise is patronizing—“You’ve been very good lately”—and his displeasure means a night spent locked in her dark room.

In other words, Manningham is a classic emotional abuser.

Part of the interest in seeing a revival of a play reflecting two earlier eras—the 1930s in which it was written and the 1880s in which it was set—is trying to figure out how much of Manningham’s attitude would have been accepted “back then” and how much was recognizably, undeniably evil. Of course, it’s clear from the outset that Manningham is the villain of this thriller, in which Bella has to decide whether she is really going mad, like her mother before her, as her husband suggests. But even when hope arrives with the entrance of a mysterious stranger, Victorian propriety (or at least, Hamilton’s interpretation of it) seems to dictate a weird dance in which characters must circle around each other without feeling free to take direct action. Why doesn’t Manningham just go get Bella when he wants to confront her with a suspected betrayal? Why doesn’t Rough, her mysterious stranger, whisk her out of harm’s way?

That’s the problem with this kind of classic suspense story: It’s hard to know when to stop trying to figure it all out, and just sit back and be scared.

Curtain Call’s production does a good job of keeping theatergoers on the edges of their seats. Although Philip C. Rice’s direction gets a little hammy at times, if any play demands that kind of eye-rolling and melodramatic Hitchcockian music, it’s this one. The good, solid cast—led by Kathleen Carey as Bella and Ed McMullen as Jack Manningham—was highlighted by sympathetic turns from Donna Gould Carsten as the loyal housekeeper and Howie Schaffer as the charming Rough. Casey Carhart’s young maid, Nancy, was suitably hissable.

Given that the stage at Curtain Call is small and the production, like most community theater, modest, it still would have been nice to see the costumes and set, so crucial for setting the time and place of this piece, ratcheted up just a hair. Still, the all-important dimming and brightening of the gaslights, which sets Bella’s doubts in motion, was perfect. If you’re in the mood to trade your modern-day tension for a little of the old-fashioned kind, Angel Street is your show.

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