SALT LAKE CITY — London, in a time when muffin men ply their trade on the street, servants answer to their masters’ summoning bells, and flickering gaslights defend the rooms of the well-to-do from the gloom of the cloying fog outside. In the Jack Manningham home, wife Bella seems to be lost in the fog herself. Is she drifting into insanity, or is she being pushed there by her “loving” husband?
Westminster College’s recent “radio show” adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight answers that question — and subtly reminds of how relevant that answer is to the glaringly LED-lit present day.
Hamilton’s original 1938 play, adapted over the years into everything from movies to podcasts, brought the word “gaslighting” into common parlance. The term refers to methodical psychological manipulation: one person tries to get another (usually with whom they are in a personal relationship) to question their perceptions or memories or even sense of reality. Individual incidences may appear small and harmless enough to an outsider. Cumulatively, they add up to destruction of the victim’s self worth and ability to make decisions. In short, abuse.
Director/adaptor Liz Whittaker’s retelling of the story, Gaslight, establishes quickly that Jack Manningham is a controller who enjoys using his Victorian power over his wife and two servants. Jaden Richard plays Jack with a casually patronizing tone perfectly in keeping with a man who doesn’t hesitate to humiliate his wife by openly flirting with a maid in her presence. He’s mean, but is he intentionally malicious?
Ryeleigh McCready portrays Bella as needy and slightly hysterical, simultaneously piteous and irritating. It is plausible that Bella is indeed gradually becoming feeble-minded like her mother, who died in an institution. It seems Bella inexplicably misplaces or hides things with no memory of doing so. Even the servants have witnessed her odd behavior. Bella says that she sees the gaslights dimming. Jack says she is imagining it. And in an audio drama audience, I can’t tell who is right.
The Manninghams’ servants have opposite ways of dealing with the situation. Housekeeper/cook Elizabeth (Kelly Wasser) stoically does what she is told but seems to support her mistress. Impudent young housemaid Nancy (Emily Kitterer) is delighted that Bella is going mad, as she schemes to become Jack’s mistress. Kitterer’s ability to drawl a simple statement into a double entendre makes for some decidedly steamy moments without actually pushing the show out of family friendly territory.
And then there is one Mr. Rough (Sean Sweeney), a cheerful intruder who claims to be some kind of detective come to help Bella. In Whittaker’s adaptation, Mr. Rough is an ambiguous character. Is he a rescuer or a manipulator? After all, he validates Bella’s perceptions but also bullies her about, using the same condescending attitude and at times the exact same words as her husband. Sweeney performs the character with a sort of relentlessly overpowering friendliness that kept me guessing whether he is a confident friend or a con artist.
Beyond a few snippets of narration (done by Taylor Wallace) and minimal sound effects, the only other clue to the physical and social setting of the play is each character’s accent. Under Jared Larkin’s coaching, all the actors keep their dialects distinct and fairly consistent throughout.
It all comes down to perception. Gaslight could be listened to as an entertaining drama to liven up a COVID quarantine evening, or it could become the springboard to discussion about toxic relationships or even the current political atmosphere. Either way, my perception is that Westminster College’s radio show is well worth a listen.