If you love Victorian melodrama, pay a visit to the inhabitants of Angel Street. The 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton is running weekends through March at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott.
In Angel Street, which became the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight, a woman is driven to the brink of insanity by the tricks and mischief of her criminally disposed husband. Cider Mill regular Tim Mollen, who directed Angel Street, thanks his mom for introducing him to the film version some years ago. His capable direction gives each member of the cast ample time to play to each side of the house, which surrounds the Cider Mill stage on three sides.
The despicable Mr. Manningham is menacingly played by Michael Moon, making his Cider Mill debut. Moon seems a little too young for the role, but he nails the character’s range from smarmy condescension to cruelty. His behavior is all the more chilling in the context of the play’s setting in which it seems that abusive behavior toward women in general is expected and only mildly resisted by the victim. It’s ironic that this play’s opening weekend ran concurrently with Know Theatre’s The Vagina Monologues, performed to raise awareness about violence against women.
Mrs. Manningham, the victim in the domestic drama, is played by New York actor Suzanne Kimball. An MFA graduate of the famous Actors Studio Drama School, she has an impressive resume, having appeared in productions with several East Coast companies. This made me wonder why she pulled out so few stops with a role that offers such a stellar opportunity to develop a rich character. At the opening weekend performance I attended, she had a way to go before anyone could have accused her of overacting.
Kimball inhabits the costume and mannerisms of the period very, very believably and is sympathetic in the role. While not exactly “somnambulating” (sleepwalking) through her ordeal, as her husband points out as he tries to get a rise out of her, her portrayal could benefit from a little more inflection and nuance. It evokes more Katherine Hepburn than Ingrid Bergman, but it would be interesting to see how it would play with a little more Suzanne Kimball. She undoubtedly has a signature style all her own, it’s just hard to tell if she is using it here.
The indefatigable Bill Gorman returns to the Mill as retired Inspector Rough, bent on solving a cold case. Rough is removed enough from the situation to be able to approach it with humor and methods that would never fly today in a by-the-book police procedural, but that’s what makes this character, and Gorman’s interpretation so believable and fun.
Supporting the cast as Elizabeth, the loyal, dowdy maid, and Nancy, the saucy, buxom, Cockney-accented servant who hopes to add to her job description, are Rona Knobel and Anna Simek, respectively. They add levity, continuity and suspense. Brenden Gregory plays the Constable. You can’t have a play like this without at least one, and Gregory fills the bill.
But the stars of this production are the set, the lighting, the period costumes and the sound design. Complete with self-important furniture, wallpaper and even a partially obscured staircase, Tyler M. Perry’s set is beautiful. From where I sat, near stage right, the staircase creates a place where eerie shadows are cast whenever a character uses them. Mrs. Mannington treads them not only to descend into the parlor where her abuser imperiously demands she appear, but to descend into madness. The set pieces — a bureau, a secretary, a fireplace and a coat tree — all work great, but my favorite pieces are the chaise lounge and a horsehair couch, both of which evoke the leisure class lifestyle of Angel Street’s house-in-town locale.
The gaslights also are integral and are dimmed remotely at times to advance the story. Pair that effect with the quietly droning, often ominous, musical soundtrack, and you have captured the ambience of an era we recognize from illustrations that might have accompanied the serialized Sherlock Holmes in The Strand Magazine. The ambient soundtrack gives a nice cinematic touch to the whole play and helps keep the audience riveted by adding an element of suspense.
Alexander Pitt, technical director and production manager, serves a very important behind-the-scenes role. An Ithaca College graduate with a BFA in Theatre Production Arts, he also has a long list of professional credits. Timing is everything for the technical elements of this show, and he is on target every time.
Anna Eden also has done a fine job designing sumptuous, rich-looking costumes. Another Ithaca College graduate, she is now working as an artistic associate at the Cider Mill, with Artistic Director Gail King Belokur.
Go see Angel Street if you love melodrama. Kudos to all for keeping it believable without allowing it to slip into a parody of the genre.
IF YOU GO: Angel Street continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays aand at 3 p.m. Sundays through March 29 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. For tickets or information, call the box office at 748-7363, or visit www.cidermillplayhouse.org.