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LTW's 'Angel Street' doesn't surprise, but as pure entertainment, it's rock-solid

Patrick Hamilton's play Angel Street is a thriller with no real surprises. It's better known by its superior 1944 film title, Gaslight, which gave us the expression "to gaslight someone"--to manipulate a person into doubting her own sanity.

So most of us know from the start that Angel Street is about a woman whose husband's subtle maneuverings are driving her mad. And even though the play abounds with the stuff of mysteries--an unsolved murder, lost rubies, muffled footfalls above the bedroom, dimming gaslights, missing trifles, locked drawers--Hamilton's abused main character pretty much knows exactly what's going on well before intermission.

Yet Angel Street, for all its deliberate lack of whodunit suspense, remains an effective thriller and a guilty pleasure. We take perverse joy in watching Jack Manningham toy with the delicate mind of his wife, Bella; we follow with satisfaction as a retired police inspector named Rough laboriously feeds Bella just enough information to confirm what she already suspects about her husband's behavior; we anticipate Jack's comeuppance with relish, but will Bella have a chance to exact some sort of revenge--and if she had a chance to kill the fiend, would she be more likely to do it or less if she regained control of her senses?

The new production of Angel Street at Live Theatre Workshop doesn't really bring out certain issues implicit in the 1938 script that would make the play fully relevant to a contemporary audience watching the play through a feminist lens. But as pure entertainment, it's a winning show.

The play is, foremost, a vehicle for the actress playing Bella--in this case, Dana Armstrong. From her very first, perfectly civil interaction with Jack, Dana's Bella looks whipped. Armstrong plays Bella with a mouse-like timidity and a pathetic hopefulness at any sign of kindness, but this never comes close to being cloying or whiny. It's clear that, even if there is a history of mental illness in Bella's family, in this case, she is clearly the victim of a manipulative husband who forces her self-doubt into a pathology. Armstrong holds the audience's sympathy throughout Bella's evening-long nervous breakdown.

Jeremy Thompson plays Jack with a frighteningly tender demeanor and caressing voice. With his dark stare, Thompson initially seems a malevolent reincarnation of silent-film idol Ivor Novello, but before long, his calculatingly calm manner and delivery call to mind Vincent Price, who played this role (probably more hammily than the understated Thompson) on stage in the 1940s. Thompson's composure is critical to the audience's acceptance of Bella's victimization: The cruelty in his tenderness may be obvious to us, but even at his most bullying, he gives the impression of being merely firm and sensible, and thus a man to be believed by an insecure young woman like Bella.

Thompson co-directed this production with Bruce Biezski, who plays retired inspector Rough (presumably each directed the other's scenes). It's the treatment of Rough that stops this show short of being required viewing for a class in sociology or women's studies. Biezski plays the character quite straightforwardly, making Rough the source of some welcome lightness without turning him into a comic figure. This Rough is avuncular and trustworthy, an unquestionably good guy, and that's fine as far as it goes.

But there's a potentially dark, or at least ambiguous, nature available to Rough that Biezski and Thompson choose not to explore. This could be most evident in Rough's inadvertently sadistic Socratic method, as he slowly fills Bella in on Jack's history by forcing her through a series of propositions for which he has no real evidence. You want to say, "Silly woman! Do as he says!" But Bella's resistance is justified; her own husband has forced her through a series of propositions demonstrating her madness, and, unlike Rough, he has presented physical evidence, albeit fabricated evidence. Grounds enough, perhaps, for Bella to follow Rough's argument reluctantly. Yet Bella's recalcitrance would be even more believable if Rough seemed less perfectly trustworthy to us. Hinting that Rough may be as devious as Jack in his exchanges with Bella (until he is ultimately revealed to be truly on her side) would make Rough a richer character.

There's little point in carping over a missed opportunity like that, though, when the production works perfectly well as is. Even the two supporting roles are handled well--Seren Helday as a conniving young tart of a maid, and Emily Chamberlain as the more trustworthy and mature domestic.

Live Theatre Workshop sometimes offers English thrillers of a certain vintage for their camp value, but in this case, the company takes the play quite seriously, without applying a heavy hand. This is a nice sign of respect for playwright Hamilton; his script's naturalism helps it transcend the melodrama genre and survive as a satisfying, serious work of popular theater.

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