Gaslighting Done Right: Interview with the cast of Hedgerow Theatre’s reinvented ANGEL STREET

Gas Light, known in the United States as Angel Street,by Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), is a much talked about 1938 British drama, featuring a manipulative husband in the London of the 1880s. In this Hedgerow production—here named ANGEL STREET (GASLIGHT)—the director, Cara Blouin, dimmed the old, long-winded three-act Gas Light to a brisk two act drama.

More significantly, Blouin progressed the story forward by 40 years and landed it in Philadelphia in 1924, shortly before the city replaced gas lighting with electricity. She also gave this mystery a feminist interpretation by turning the detective (played by Brittany Holdahl) into a masculine woman with jet black hair, dressed in a black suit and wearing black boots—resembling an Angel of Death taking revenge on a criminal and cruel husband through her investigation.

Hamilton’s classical thriller, with its serious psychological undertones, had been adapted into several films and popularized the term “gaslighting.” Clinicians and therapists describe it as a method of traumatization in which abusers deliberately feed their victims false information with the goal of controlling their partners by making them doubt their own memory and perception and becoming totally dependent on their manipulators. 

We talked to the cast and the stage manager about the play and its themes. [Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Rose Valley, PA] September 29-October 30, 2016; hedgerowtheatre.org.

The cast of Hedgerow's ANGEL STREET (GASLIGHT). Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

The cast of Hedgerow’s ANGEL STREET (GASLIGHT). Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Henrik Eger: How would you describe GASLIGHT to people who have never seen it before?

Jared Reed:GASLIGHT is a 1938 thriller about a woman being driven mad by her murderous husband, Mr. Manningham (that’s me!).

Brittany Holdahl: GASLIGHT is a thriller in which a woman’s perception of reality is manipulated by her husband so that he may serve his malicious interests. Only through the validation of her suppositions by an outsider can she be freed, but even the outsider’s existence is doubtful in her world.

Teresa Kozin: This thrilling drama, GASLIGHT, is the twisted story of a romance gone wrong. A woman has an undying love for her husband, but he has another plan for their marriage. As he slowly manipulates her into insanity for his personal gain, she must fight for her freedom with the help of a mysterious detective—but is this detective really there?

Henrik: What is your role and what do you bring to it, both as a professional and a human being?

Jared: I play Jack Manningham, the villain. Ultimately, it is acting, but I bring to it my very worst self. It’s a fun trick—to be the worst you can be as a person and fully commit to having an audience hate you for it.

Jennifer Summerfield: I play Bella Manningham, the wife. It’s an extremely emotional role, so all the acting I’ve ever done in my life helps me through it, particularly on those days when inspiration is absent and I need all the technique I have. As a person, I bring every infuriating conversation I’ve ever had where I’ve been told, “No, your knowledge and experience are invalid—let me tell you why!”

Brittany: I play [detective] Rough, who has been traditionally played by a male. We had to find Rough’s literal voice, her physicality, her idiosyncrasies. Our only tools in this endeavor were Hamilton’s text—which we tore apart and reinterpreted—and my own experiences as a woman.

Allison Bloechl: I play Nancy, the maid. We’ve moved the play up to the 1920’s and made Nancy an ultra-modern flapper, a foil to Bella. Even though this character has often been written off as just a vamp, I bring my independence as a woman in 2016 to the role. Her independence and brashness, in opposition to Bella, show that anyone can be gaslighted.

Susan Wefel: I play Elizabeth, the housekeeper who is loyal to her mistress. I find that I can use myself a lot as an actress by being real and believable in this sad story.

Teresa: I am the stage manager for this show. Although I do not have an acting role in this production, I feel as though I bring a sense of leadership to the table. Just as Kate Rough is there for Bella to lead her through this time of confusion and doubt, I am here to lead my actors through this process of producing a beautiful piece of art.

Henrik: Share a quote from the play that speaks to you.

Jennifer: [Detective] Kate Rough is the first person Bella has had contact with who tells her that her perceptions are real. The quote: “You underestimate your powers, Mrs. Manningham. I don’t want you thinking you can’t trust your reason,” represents a shift in the power dynamic within the play for me.

Brittany: “You are not going out of your mind, Mrs. Manningham; you are slowly, methodically, systematically being driven out of your mind!” (Kate Rough, the detective.)

Teresa: Bella begins to give up hope when her housemaid, Elizabeth, gives her important advice, “Don’t talk like that, Madam. You’ve got to be brave. You mustn’t go on lying here in the dark, or your mind will go.” This statement relates to Bella’s depression, a disease that could beat her down until she succumbs to it.

Allison: Very early on in the play, Mr. Manningham says to Mrs. Manningham, “Don’t be such a little silly.” It’s such a simple statement, but it packs a punch. In those few words, he has invalidated Bella’s reality to gain power over her—a classical case of “gaslighting.”

Susan: When both maids have been ordered to kiss the Bible as a sign of their truthfulness, Mrs. Manningham then says, “Give me that Bible! […] Let me kiss it, too! There! […] Do you see that I kiss it?” Mr. Manningham responds, “For God’s sake, be careful what you do. Do you desire to commit sacrilege above all else?” This scene shows total humiliation for Bella at her husband’s hands.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Henrik: How relevant is this British play from 1938 to life in the US in 2016?

Jennifer:GASLIGHT may as well have been written yesterday. The audience response is a testament to how pertinent it is to our experience today. Theatergoers have had a visceral response to the treatment Bella receives at the hands of her husband. Some people even voiced their advice to her from their seats—which I love!

Jared: It is very sad, but GASLIGHT is completely relevant to our own time where some people are bending the truth and forcing good people to accept hate and unkindness by using words that are deceptive.

Brittany: This drama is depressingly relevant. I think the only difference between 1938 gaslighting and 2016 gaslighting is that we are aware of it now, or in the words of Adrienne Maree Brown, “Things are not getting worse; they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

Teresa: The term “gaslighting” has been around since this play came out. Although people may have different tactics as the years go on, it is still all around us. Manipulation and emotional abuse will always be a factor. Luckily, people are becoming less and less afraid to stand against it every day.

Allison: I don’t think this play will ever stop being relevant. People will always perceive things differently, and as long as they do, the opportunity for gaslighting is there.

Susan: We now have many powerful organizations that, like Life Beyond Abuse [and the National Domestic Violence Hotline], are dealing head on with these life situations. So, yes, this is still a problem in 2016, but people are beginning to stand up against [psychological and physical] abuse.

Henrik: Do you see any remnants of this form of oppression of women in our own time?

Jennifer: Oh, yes. Sadly, most laws affecting women and their mental and physical health are still made up by men living in an era when women had no agency of their own.

Allison: Let me count the ways. The election immediately comes to mind with comments about women being “too emotional” or “on their periods,” and people telling us whether or not something should be considered offensive.

Jared: Yes, the recent presidential debates, for example, Mike Pence gaslighting America.

Brittany: Any time someone is seen as a threat against an anachronistic, harmful ideology, which serves another group’s agenda, the challenger is gaslit. The victims are called “unstable,” “incompetent,” “unenlightened,” “entitled,” and sometimes even “unattractive” in order to be quelled. Recently, Black Lives Matter protesters, the transgendered community, and women’s rights activists have been gaslit.

Teresa: All the hate and negativity around the world has been the cause of anger and chaos. What one person may not find offensive may be offensive to another. Because many people tend to choose to be ignorant to the feelings of others, we have hate. Ignorance and a lack of compassion lead to gaslighting—and it will continue, as long as we let it.

Henrik: With which character do you identify the most? Tell us more about your relationship to

this character and what you associate with that person from your own life.

Jared: Oh, Manningham without a doubt. I can totally hear myself making arguments as this villain that I have made in life.

Brittany: I adore Rough, but I see a lot of myself in Bella—one so in love with a partner that she let them compromise herself and her perception of reality. Any empathetic person can see themselves in Bella, really.

Jennifer: I can relate to Bella on a human level. However, I like to think I’m most like Elizabeth, played by Susan Wefel, who is always there with a much needed cup of tea and a listening ear in a crisis. If I were a character in a book, I would definitely be the trusted confidante.

Susan: I loved hearing what Jennifer said about my character, Elizabeth. I can relate very much to Bella as I think we all have a little of her in us in our love relationships.

Teresa: I relate very much to Nancy. She plays a strong role and says what she feels without any regret, but when it comes down to it, even her view is obstructed by the desire she shows for Manningham. No matter how strong you may be in your convictions, everyone is human and vulnerable to the gaslight effect.

Allison: I see a lot of myself in Nancy, maybe with a bit more control. She says what she’s thinking and goes after what she wants—and she doesn’t see any problem with that.

Henrik: What was the biggest challenge for you in working on this play?

Jared: Other than learning lines, embracing that the audience will hate me. Usually, you try to make your character as likable as possible. But not here!

Brittany: The reinterpretation of a [1938] character. Finding her was the first challenge. The second challenge was overcoming my fear of Hamilton, the literary purist: I was worried that our vision would be seen as sacrilegious, rather than refreshing. Luckily, the audience response has been very positive, which is very encouraging and rewarding.

Jennifer: I was more than a little nervous that the audience would hate me for my perceived weakness and end up sympathizing with the villain (as I often do when watching classic Hollywood movies, where you root for the villain to escape). Giving Bella variety and levels of expression was what I tried to do.

Teresa: Watching the plotline unfold and seeing it only as a play, but knowing that this is a real life problem that people go through every single day. What we display as a show may be someone else’s nightmare.

Allison: Because of the time period that the play is originally set in (late 1800s), I struggled to take Nancy out of the “sexy maid” box and make her a fully-fledged person with her own, nuanced story. [Director] Cara and I worked hard together to craft someone who was multidimensional when there’s really not that much that Nancy is given in the script.

Susan: I found it hard not to say anything and just be as a domestic servant would be in that time period.

Henrik: What did you enjoy the most about this production?

Jared: Oh, the cast, the crew, and the director, Cara Blouin.

Brittany: Again: The reinterpretation of a character from the 1880s. Rough is a woman I have grown to really love and I could not have done her justice without the generous natures, astute observations, and meticulous attention to detail of the cast and crew. Everyone involved in this production has made it an absolute joy and an enlightening exploration.

Jennifer: This is my fourth “Fall Thriller” at Hedgerow and I just love being a part of these. Each of these productions has taken a play we all think we know well and turned it on its ear, through untraditional casting and setting. Plus, there’s such a wonderful energy and excitement here, and I love the smell of autumn in the air.

Teresa: Watching everyone’s character develop in their incredibly emotional roles and observing each person get stronger in their deliveries has been a moving experience.

Allison: Everyone involved in this production, definitely, but also the ability to tell such an important story. Many people come to this show not knowing the significance of gaslighting. Hopefully, they’ll come away with a better understanding of it and can get help if they are being abused or, if they practice it, stop using it.

Susan: My favorite season is Fall and Hedgerow does wonderful mystery thrillers at this time. Great cast, great crew, great director.

Henrik: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Susan: The term “gaslighting” originally referred to the act of turning on the lights in a house powered by gas. However, in this play, as lights are turned on upstairs, the lights dim slightly on the ground floor. That is how Mrs. Manningham becomes aware of a stranger in her own house—but who is it? Since the first production of this play [in 1938], “gaslighting” has become a common term for manipulation: He’s “gaslighting” her!

Jared: What speaks to me is how the language of the play is so very current. It shows how people, usually men, use language to play out a power struggle: Using semantics as weapons, for example, by making someone agree with a reprehensible thought by framing the question or statement “reasonably.”

Brittany: There are two important things to take away from this play: Mind your own perception of reality and try to understand, rather than discredit the reality perceived by others.

Henrik: Many thanks to everyone at the Hedgerow theatre for a fine production and alerting us to the danger of “gaslighting.”

[Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Rose Valley, PA] September 29-October 30, 2016; hedgerowtheatre.org.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com