PROVO — Angel Street is a surprisingly thrilling play that takes audiences back to the late 1800’s in London. Here, in the Pimlico district, lives Jack Manningham and his fair wife, Bella. The first time Bella is introduced to the audience, she seems nervous, frightened, and unsure. It doesn’t take too long to understand the reasons for Bella’s feelings: Jack is manipulative. Jack is cunning. And Jack has a secret. Unbeknownst to Bella, Jack is driving her to a point of insanity, with his little tricks and traps that make her unsure of her own mind and memory. So, is the new visitor who knocked on Bella’s door a figment of her imagination, another secret plan of Jack’s, or an angel sent to free her from her bondage?
Written by Patrick Hamilton, this show is currently playing the Covey Center for the Arts on Center Street in Provo. It was produced in 1941 in Los Angeles but eventually made its way to Broadway, later being adapted for film and television. The movie depicts the new visitor, Rough, as a young man — a love interest for Bella.
However, Director Barta Heiner decided to follow the script and cast Rough as an older gentleman, a directorial choice I appreciated. Heiner also helped the actors create strong characters who had years of stories behind them. Every character had depth and a lifetime of experience they carried around with them. Jack had his secrets, Bella had family difficulties, Rough had years of investigative inquiries. Heiner was able to help the actors figure out their stories and avoid a two-dimensional character that would only exist during the scenes they were in.
Production designers Pam Davis and Robert Seely tactfully created lighting to help produce the suspense needed to further the story along. While there were stage lights to present the play, there were also two house lights that dimmed independent of the stage lights. They represented gas lights, dimming when another light was lit in the house; dimming when the phantom footsteps above started creeping along the ceiling.
The Black Box Theatre inside the Covey Center is an intimate space, just big enough for three rows of chairs surrounding the edges of the stage. This set-up was perfect for this thrilling production, as the actors were able to maneuver around the audience members. The set consisted of two parts: the central living room, and a side desk in the back corner. The cast had to move through an opening in the audience to get to the desk, occasionally brushing the audience members’ legs with their dresses as they rushed by. The chairs were so close to the action that I often felt as if I was a third member of the story, wanting to interrupt the conversation to help Bella or Rough in the middle of their discussions.
The script struggled to build into the suspense at first, but left a perfect cliffhanger for intermission. Unfortunately, when the action resumed, it was clear that the scene was cut in half for this intermission. Jumping back into the second act, the suspense had to build again, but it thankfully it did so more quickly, and I was satisfied.
As Bella, Madeline McBeth’s debut to the theatrical stage welcomed. She brought the proper emotion and a believable portrayal of a manipulated wife whose sole desire in life was to be loved. In the last scene, McBeth came out crying, frantically expressing all of the emotion her character Bella had seemed to be holding in since her marriage to Jack Manningham. Coming from a novice to the stage, seeing those tears flowing was impressive. Adam Argyle, playing Jack Manningham, presented well the dark, seducing, and twisted husband who, when presented with an opportunity, always found a selfish way to benefit his own wants and needs. Argyle was especially convincing during the first scene of the play, when he twisted everything onto Bella. Argyle had a soft-spoken, I-am-the-victim-here voice, which, when Bella would pull away, would turn into a strong, don’t-you-dare-disobey-me voice. Argyle’s deception even left me feeling like I was the root of his problems.
Lastly, Joel Applegate, who played Rough, gave a splendid portrayal of an acquaintance who is rough on the outside, but has a soft spot for this daughter-like figure of Bella. In a post-show discussion, Applegate described his biggest challenge with playing a character like Rough. He explained how finding a perfect balance between the name Rough and having compassion had to come through in the portrayal of his assigned role. Rough was the character I resonated most with, as I realized that whenever he left the small room, I felt unsafe. I didn’t want him to leave me with Jack, so I understood how Bella felt the same way. But did he come only because he’s an angel sent to save Bella? Or is he the distraction from the pacing in the locked room upstairs?
Overall, this play was more than an elementary scary story. Rather, Angel Street had me on the edge of my seat with my heart pounding at every turn. I found myself quietly whispering, “Oh, no no no no!” under my breath. Angel Street is a show that sets the perfect mood for this Halloween season.