The origins of the psychological horror tactic of tormenting a victim so he questions his sanity stops at “Angel Street,” the 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton that was the basis for the 1944 movie “Gaslight.”
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the vivid Victorian nightmare just in time for Halloween, and the Mainstage production runs from Oct. 16 through Nov. 8.
The play, and film, have generated countless versions. Vincent Price played Jack Manningham in its New York run in 1941, and the play is one of the longest running non-musicals in Broadway history. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for Best Actress and the film won Best Art Direction among its seven nominations.
Bella Manningham thinks she is going mad, as her tyrannical husband convinces her she is only imagining the gas lights in the house are dimmer, among other lies.
The work is so popular that the the term “gaslighting” sprang from it, meaning a form of psychological abuse by presenting a victim with false information so that they doubt their own memory and perceptions. The Sherlock Holmes character on the TV show “Elementary” even referred to it.
For the Rep’s staging, director Jenn Thompson has built upon the creepy foundation to present a stunning tableau, set in London in 1880.
“I am very very fond of this play. It’s actually quite different from the film. It’s the same story, a sociopath trying to make his wife crazy,” she said.
She thinks a psychological drama that people can relate to, more so than a Boogeyman, is terrifying — and good theater.
“The person sleeping next to you, and you don’t know them all that well, is manipulating you so that you doubt your own mind — that aspect is very modern,” she said.
She wants to completely immerse the audience in the spooky shenanigans taking place in an old and dark home, and is using scenic designer Wilson Chin’s three-story Victorian home as another character. The house will become more haunted as the play progresses.
“I love the design process. I love working with designers and really building on the concepts,” she said.
In most productions, dialogue takes place in one room. For this show, she knew the home would set the tone and heighten the sense of claustrophobia.
“It’s usually a well-appointed parlor, but I wanted to be more ambitious, to add the creepy factors. There are moments you wouldn’t see otherwise, and this gives the house a little more spooky effect,” she said.
“It’s a very grand home, partially lived in. The marriage is troubled and Bella’s home life is fragile, and that had to be reflected. It’s also haunted, because there had been a murder there,” she said. “I wanted to go inside the house, and see them in the rooms. There are jewels hidden in the house, so I wanted people to see inside.”
She knew Chin would be ideal to design the set. “He is the first person I thought of. He’s the perfect fit for this type of material. We have collaborated many times before. He could play with the moods, and take this classic in a new direction,” she said.
Lighting designer Peter E. Sargent worked on enhancing the tension and atmosphere, too.
Thompson wanted the costumes to be as authentic as possible, and knew David Toser was the go-to designer.
“He knows what button, buckle, shoelace is from in any given period. His clothes are so detailed,” she said. “He believes the actors can interpret their role better when the details are there, when it’s right.”
The casting had to be perfect, too.
Clark Scott Carmichael, who appeared in The Rep’s Studio production of “The Other Place,” will play the sinister Jack.
“It’s been fun. He’s such a nice guy, polite and courteous, but I think that’s important when you have to play awful people. Because with his inherent goodness, you build a lot of trust with the other actors, the ones that you have to abuse on stage,” she said.
The cast includes Janie Brookshire as Bella, making her Rep debut. Geoffrey Wade, who was in the 1998 “An Ideal Husband” at The Rep, plays Inspector Rough, and Rachel Kenney and Amelia White play servants Nancy and Elizabeth.
“It’s been really fun,” she said.
Thompson, who lives in Brooklyn, began acting at age 10, and her parents are both actors. She moved into the director’s chair, and prefers to be involved in all aspects of a show.
“I feel it’s a better fit. Since I started as a kid, I felt a need to re-invent myself. I love working on the scope of a show. And I love actors. I feel there is a great ease in working with them,” she said.
She has been at The Rep before, too. “This has always been one of my favorite theaters to work at, and I’m excited about this show.”
Just keep the lights on when you leave your house.
The Rep has launched Quick Start this season. It’s a free pre-show series for Mainstage performances, and they begin one hour prior to curtain. Exclusive presentations by actors, behind-the-scene stories, cultural background and other insider information helps audience members enter the world of the play. Quick Start does not take place opening night, at 8 p.m. Saturday performances, and before previews.
For more about this production, and the Rep’s 49th season, visit www.repstl.org.
- Who: The Repertory Theatre
- When: Oct. 16-Nov. 6
- Where: 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis
- Tickets: www.repstl.org; 314-968-4925