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Entertainment Arts

Olney Theatre Center revives 1930s thriller 'Angel Street'

Even in our LED age, there is still something deliciously spooky about the sight of gas jets getting fainter, for no apparent reason, inside the glass lamps of a lush Victorian parlor.

It's the unforgettable visual motif many a movie fan will always associate with “Gaslight,” the 1944 hit that won Ingrid Bergman an Academy Award as a pitiful wife being slowly driven insane by her husband — mysterious dimming had a lot to do with it.

The inspiration for that film, Patrick Hamilton's sturdy little thriller “Angel Street,” doesn't enjoy quite as much fame these days, which makes the play's handsome revival by the Olney Theatre Center all the more welcome.

The 1938 stage work may not be quite as ripping as the Hollywood classic, or the highly regarded, British-made cinematic version that preceded it by a few years (also named “Gaslight”). The play skims over things that can get more context on the screen, and has to work harder at generating suspense, which is a comparative breeze for movie-makers.

But “Angel Street” is well-written, neatly structured and tightly paced, with an intriguing plot that unfolds almost in real time, covering a single afternoon and evening in the 1880 London residence of Mr. Manningham and his wife, Bella.

All seems perfectly normal in this very respectable home until the husband starts berating his wife for her habit of misplacing or deliberately hiding things. Bella has no idea she has done that, nor any idea why her husband is so positive she is headed toward a severe mental illness.

Needless to say, there is method in Manningham's madness-inducing machinations. Bit by bit, as his plan becomes clear, Bella’s fate seems all the more precarious.

The big star of the Olney production is the richly appointed, two-story set by James Wolk, a wonderful place for the action to flow in, and flow it does at a brisk pace, thanks to director John Going.

Bella, a woman both grateful for and scared of her husband, is portrayed by Julie-Ann Elliott. She could use more subtlety and nuance in places, especially to communicate a deeper sense of the ordeal that Bella has already been put through before the curtain rises.

But Elliott gives a confident performance that turns quite affecting when it comes to conveying Bella's gradual realization, at least on some level, that she might not be the "wretched imbecile” described by Manningham.

Although Jeffries Thaiss, as the husband, seems a little too young for the role, he ultimately succeeds in creating a vividly creepy character. He deftly conveys the way Manningham can spin on a farthing, going from pleasant spouse to condescending louse.

Alan Wade does assured and vivid work as the aptly named, flask-concealing Rough, who says he's a police inspector when he calls on Bella after her husband has gone out.

One of the cool things about the play is that no one seems entirely trustworthy at first. That goes for both servants in the Manningham household.

Dylan Silver flounces about nicely as Nancy, the flirtatious housemaid (the role that provided Angela Lansbury’s terrific screen debut in the 1944 "Gaslight"). When Manningham rings the bell for her, Silver knows just how to coat the line, “Do you want me, sir?” Rounding out the cast is Laura Giannarelli, a warm, colorful presence as the housekeeper Elizabeth.

Liz Covey's expert costumes and Dennis Parichy's sensitive lighting also help to keep things running smoothly and entertainingly on “Angel Street.”

The production runs through July 14.

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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