The poster for the production of “Gaslight” that opened Friday night at UWS’s Manion Theatre echoes the movie poster for “The Exorcist.” So even if you know nothing about Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, that alone clues you in that something evil is afoot.
I have never seen the classic 1944 film version of “Gaslight,” but the term in all its variant forms has entered into the public lexicon (and the play’s program), so it is impossible to not know what is really going on from the start.
But pretend you know nothing and appreciate “Gaslight” as a Victorian thriller and how Hamilton’s script plays with the audience.
Because in the first scene all the hints suggest something is off with Kitara Peterson’s Mrs. Manningham, especially when she is nasty to one of the servants.
Then, when Zachary Palmer’s Mr. Manningham notices something amiss and becomes increasingly agitated that his wife is not immediately rectifying the matter, we are as puzzled and in the dark as Mrs. Manningham.
Pretty neat trick for unifying the audience with the character.
It is only when the jovial figure of Rough, played with great relish by Kane Wallner, enters onto the scene that both the audience and the perplexed Mrs. Manningham are provided with a motive for Mr. Manningham’s treatment of his wife.
The pawns in the deadly chess game are the servants, the haughty Nancy (Lucia Stroede) and the kindly Elizabeth (McKenzy Cich).
The performances of the young cast keep “Gaslight” from being an old chestnut.
Because Rough has a whole lot of explaining to do, Wallner’s skills are needed to engage our attention and also provide some comic relief as the affable police detective.
Palmer’s Manningham gets too angry, too early and too often in Act 1. The approach is misplaced because gaslighting is by definition a subtle type of psychological manipulation.
There are moments when Rough yells as Mrs. Manningham as well. It just seemed unseemly for a Victorian gentleman to speak to a woman in that manner.
However, the angry yelling does work much better in the second act, after Palmer lets Manningham’s mask slip in a cruel little game of cat and mouse with Elizabeth. In the end game, when he tries to finish the job of destroying his wife, our eyes are riveted on Palmer.
Peterson plays a woman bedeviled by a growing mountain of doubt for most of the evening and is rewarded when Hamilton’s script gives her a big moment that Peterson absolutely nails.
Director Cathy A. Fank plays up the way “Gaslight” plays with the audience. We first see Mr. Manningham resting on the sort of couch one associates more with a session with a psychiatrist than with an afternoon nap.
The stage is dimly lit, which heightens the effect of the gaslights and sets up the moment when both Mrs. Manningham and the audience start to understand what is really happening.
At which point, she turns up the light on the table.
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.
If you go
What: "Gaslight” by Patrick Hamilton
Where: Manion Theatre-Holden Fine Arts Center, University of Wisconsin-Superior
When: 7:30 Friday and Saturday Nov. 16, 22 and 23, 2 p.m. Nov. 17 and 24
Tickets: $15 adults, $10 seniors and non-UWS students, $5 for WUS students at the campus box office