Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Cincy Shakes generally traffics in the classics, but its definition of such works is quite elastic. The 1944 noir film Gaslight is the best known version of the story. It starred Ingrid Bergman in an Oscar-winning performance as a woman being convinced by a nefarious husband that she is going mad. His insistence that the dimming of their home's gaslights is in her imagination inspired the term that today is often employed to suggest devious psychological manipulation. Dietz, whose 40-plus plays have been produced in more than 100 regional theaters (including numerous productions on several Cincinnati stages), has moved the story to 1880s New York City in a gloomy, three-story house on, presumably, Manhattan's Lower East Side.
We meet arrogant Jack Manningham (Tom Coiner) and his thoughtful wife Bella (Kristin Yancy). He treats her patronizingly and humiliates her in front of a pair of maidservants, mature and devoted Elizabeth (Karen MacDonald) and high-spirited, irreverent Nancy (Candice Handy, a Cincy Shakes veteran). It's clear that Tom seeks to undermine Bella's confidence and isolate her from the company of others. He goes out to socialize nightly, leaving her at home alone, where the gaslights dim at intervals and noises emanate from the always-locked third floor, phenomena that Tom dismisses while telling Bella she is imagining things.
An ebullient, uninvited British police inspector Sergeant Rough (energetic Jim Hopkins, who's been a Cincy Shakes regular for 17 seasons) visits Bella one evening when Jack is out and shares his belief that her husband is someone other than Jack Manningham. But Bella has been made so vulnerable by Jack that she cannot tell whether Rough and his claims are credible or a product of her fevered imagination.
The story unfolds from there with a series of twists and turns until Bella gets her footing back in reality. But Dietz's script throws enough doubt along the way that it's evident he expects audiences to be uncertain how Bella's plight will be resolved. Yancy's performance vacillates between spark and uncertainty, keeping her as the play's emotional focus. Coiner's unscrupulous, domineering role is a flatter and more blatantly manipulative character. It's clear that he's the villain.
Aptly named Inspector Rough is portrayed as a dogged pursuer of a criminal, but his methods are curiously inept and typically accompanied by odd behavior. He dresses with strange flair, showing off a "saucy" shirt and stealing one of Tom's ties from a closet where he hides when Tom shows up unexpectedly. He recruits Bella to help him reveal the truth about Jack, but his strange ways are enough to make her doubt his reality. Dietz's script provides Rough with numerous quirky outbursts, and Hopkins plays these for considerable humor that evokes audience laughter. Both maidservants also evince behavior that invite amused reactions, especially Handy's sassy Nancy, whose attitude seems extremely unlikely for a young servant of color in 19th-century America.
Such behavior and overt humor tend to undermine some of the story's expected taut suspense. It's a delicate balance, but I'm inclined to call this show a comedic thriller rather than a haunting noir drama. I'm sure audiences will be entertained by this two-hour production, but the fairly obvious outcome is telegraphed by the time of the intermission.
This world premiere of Dietz's new version of Gaslight is a co-production with Merrimack Repertory Theatre from Lowell, Massachusetts, where it will next be presented after closing in Cincinnati. Several of the actors are regulars there. Gaslight's director Courtney Sale, Merrimack's artistic director, has paced the show effectively, especially having Yancy's Bella take long pauses when she wrestles with whether her perceptions represent reality.
Cincy Shakes' scenic designer Samantha Reno has devised a set that's picture perfect, with all the necessary details–including a large walk-in closet, used for comic effect more than once. The flickering gaslight illumination (Laura Glover is the lighting designer) is both a trigger for Bella's uncertainty and a representation of possibly shifting reality. Robert Carlton Stimmel's subtle underscoring proves emotional cues when they're called for. The Cincy Shakes production team deserves further praise for its support of this classic story.
Gaslight runs through September 24, 2023, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-2773.