Creative team keeps ‘Angel Street’ stimulating

Doubt is a powerful device. Because of her husband’s cunning manipulation, uncertainty takes over Bella’s mind in the classic psychological thriller, “Angel Street,” a 1938 theatrical chestnut given a vibrant reworking at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

The Rep’s production values are always of the highest caliber, but this presentation ranks among the finest scenic and lighting designs ever to grace the Mainstage. Scenic designer Wilson Chin’s work is stunning, in tandem with Peter E. Sargent’s carefully modulated lighting, as well as period-perfect costumes designed by David Toser.

As the play progresses, the set expands and becomes integral to the story. The innovative use of previously hidden rooms heightens the suspense, and we can marvel at the sharp attention to detail.

The premise of Patrick Hamilton’s play, which enjoyed a lengthy run on Broadway that originated in 1941 starring Vincent Price, has been used in multiple stories throughout the years. The 1944 film version, called “Gaslight,” resulted in the widespread use of the term “gaslighting,” to indicate a form of psychological abuse where the tormenter makes their victim doubt their sanity.

Under Jenn Thompson’s seamless direction, an eeriness envelopes the stage from the start. The home of Jack and Bella Manningham is not a happy one. The play is set in Victorian London circa 1880, therefore the social mores of the day meant the man ruled the roost and controlled his wife.

Clark Scott Carmichael is forceful as the arrogant, domineering husband. Jack is a horrible man, and today would be referred to as a bully. He has convinced frail Bella that something is terribly wrong with her, for things are missing, and he exploits her disorientation.

Janie Brookshire attempts to make Bella less of a victim, and is strong when her courage is tested. It is a difficult role, and Brookshire adroitly undergoes intense emotional calisthenics.

As her paranoia mounts, she has a fortuitous visit from a retired police detective, Rough. A wee bit mysterious, Rough reveals Jack’s ulterior motives. He is a devious criminal and murderer, looking for rubies hidden in the home.

With jaunty charm, Rough ultimately gains Bella’s confidence and helps prevent Jack from sending her over the edge. In a delightful turn, Geoffrey Wade steals the show as the ever-ready Rough, whose quips help diffuse the tension.

Fine supporting work is delivered by Rachel Kenney as a saucy maid and Amelia White as dutiful housekeeper Elizabeth.

Such a drama could be deemed old-fashioned, but an inspired creative team has made it stimulating, and a spirited cast excels at keeping our attention, so that it really is a timeless tale.

It’s the perfect time of year for a shrewd, savvy thriller heavy on the paranoia. The audience was so wrapped up in the outcome that applause erupted, and there were more than a few hisses at the villain.

“Angel Street”

  • Who: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  • When: Now through Nov. 8
  • Where: Loretto-Hilton Mainstage, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis
  • Tickets: www.repstl.org, 314-968-4925