HAZLETON — It seems like they’re in for another unpleasant evening at the Manningham household in 1880s London, with Bella fluttering around, distraught because she has somehow displeased her husband, and Jack refusing to explain what’s wrong.
“For God’s sake, don’t turn your back on me!” Bella implores him. “What is amiss?”
“You know perfectly well,” he replies. “Rectify it at once and I will say no more.”
As the scene in the suspenseful play “Gaslight” continues, it turns out Jack is annoyed that a framed picture is missing from its customary place. He calls in the cook and the maid and has them kiss a bible to attest they’re being truthful when they say they didn’t remove it.
Did Jack take down the picture himself?
Certainly not, he thunders. He is not responsible for such a “wicked and fantastic trick.” So it must have been Bella who committed this apparently terrible crime of moving the picture, right? Only she has no recollection of doing that.
Could this mean she’s going crazy, as her mother did before her?
“The play gradually unveils” the truth of what’s going on between the Manninghams, said Adam Randis, of Hazleton, who is directing “Gaslight” for the Pennsylvania Theatre of Performing Arts Friday through May 20 at the J.J. Ferrara Center.
While he doesn’t want to reveal too much of the plot, Randis said Jack Manningham is obviously a controlling husband. Is that because he wants to protect his wife? Or does he have a more sinister motive?
So many troubling things have been happening around the house, from Jack’s missing keys and pen to Bella’s missing watch and brooch and then that missing picture. What does it all mean?
Also, the dog’s paw is injured. Is Bella responsible for that?
And, why does Bella think the lights are always dimming? Is that another sign she’s losing her mind?
The possibility of Jack having to commit his poor, crazy wife to a mental institution comes up in the script. What would that have meant in 19th century London?
“Basically a living hell, a glorified jail,” said Zach Sessock, of the South Middletown section of Hazle Township, who portrays Jack. “The medical treatments probably would have been like torture,” he speculated during a recent rehearsal break.
Suffice it to say, a friend would not want to see her in such a place. But does Bella have any friends?
“My heart bleeds for her, but I keep my mouth shut,” said Lisa Dougherty, of Hazleton, who plays Elizabeth, the cook.
“My character is a lot younger than she is and not very kind to her,” said Rachel Orehotsky, of Plains Township, who portrays Nancy, the maid. “She sees Bella as weak and thinks she doesn’t deserve (her wealth).”
Perhaps Bella has one person staunchly in her corner. Inspector Rough shows up, kisses her hand, assures her she is not mad, and suggests she sample some “medicine from Scotland” that comes in a rather long-necked bottle.
But is the inspector a flesh-and-blood human being?
“There’s never a moment when he’s onstage with anyone except Bella,” Randis said, explaining audience members will have to decide if they think Rough is real or a figment of Bella’s imagination.
Either way, “it’s definitely a release for her to vent to him,” said Jessica Schafer, of Lehighton, who portrays Bella.
“There’s a lot to notice in the script,” Lee Alucci, of Kline Township, said, being careful not to reveal too much about his character, Inspector Rough. “When we read it as a cast, there were a lot of clues.”
Some audience members may have seen the 1944 film version of the story, Randis said, adding that it starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, with a young Angela Lansbury as the maid. The film gave new meaning to “gaslight,” he said, making the term for a certain kind of psychological manipulation “part of our lexicon.”
The Hazleton production is dedicated to the memory of Paul Winarski, the PTPA artistic director who directed and performed in many local plays before passing away earlier this year.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.