Barrington Stage Company: A psychological thriller

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PITTSFIELD — The term "gaslight," and all its forms of speech, first appeared in English usage in 1956, and had little to do with the late 19th-century street lighting. Sported as both a noun and a verb, its definition alluded to the act of one person manipulating another into making the latter think they were going insane.



According to Merriam-Webster, the word's origins are noted as coming from a 1938 mystery-thriller by English playwright Patrick Hamilton, "Gas Light."



Barrington Stage Company is set to give regional theater fans a lesson in etymology, and so much more, in its current Boyd-Quinton Mainstage production of "Gaslight," formerly known in the U.S. as "Angel Street."



The play is directed by Louisa Proske, most recently seen at BSC in this summer's well-regarded "This." Proske said that even the name change back to its original title was an attempt at awareness and education.



"We have come to know so much more about gaslighting in recent years and the psychological torment it has come to represent," Proske said. "The fact that the actual English language has added it to its evolving lexicon is a statement itself as to the growing need for understanding it."



Proske added that gaslighting has not only evoked serious scholarly study in recent years, but also has raised a simple question of human interaction and emotions: "What possibly can make one human being do this to another, especially within the realm of an intimate relationship?"



The original play was made into the popular 1944 film starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and is viewed as one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all times.



Playwright Hamilton tells the story of Mr. Manningham (Mark H. Dold), a suavely handsome man, who is slowly driving his gentle, devoted wife, Mrs. Mannington, or Bella, (Kim Stauffer) to the brink of insanity with seemingly overwhelming kindness, while sowing seeds of doubt, memory loss and misperceptions. Also in the cast are Kevin O'Rourke as Rough, Peggy Pharr Wilson as Elizabeth and Ali Rose Dachis as Nancy.



Dold said he relished the role of Mr. Manningham, because the part was "so opposite" to who he was in reality, and that it offered him "a powerful acting challenge."



"This play is a classic of its genre, and so everyone knows coming in that Mr. Manningham is probably not the nicest guy," Dold said. "However, there are many twists and turns in the story, so simple assumptions made up front are called out along the way. This not only challenges the cast to be as convincing as possible, but also asks the audience to sort through its own understanding of what it means to be human."



Acting out gaslighting, Dold continued, was physically and emotionally challenging, which added to the acting appeal. He explained that it also helped that the cast members, even early in the rehearsal process, were aware of the "strong on-stage-chemistry it would require."



Stauffer, playing Mrs. Manningham, agreed with Dold, saying that what makes the act of gaslighting itself difficult to identify is that victims often buy in, thus not realizing the "subtle yet intense manipulation that goes on."



"From the outside you see somebody who has been through the gaslighting experience, and you wonder to yourself, `why didn't they see this happening?'" Stauffer said. "I've done a lot of research into people who have been through this to prepare for the role. One of my goals is to really work on bringing humanity to the role of Bella. [Gaslighting] is such a subtle and crafted act, so it become very difficult for her to see."



"Gaslight," which will run through Oct. 22, is two and a half hours with an intermission. In conjunction with the current production, Barrington Stage also will host a community-based panel discussion on "Gaslighting, or Psychological Bullying" at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15, at BSC's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.



Proske concluded by saying that while "Gaslight" will resonate on a deeply personal level and does look at abuse and relationships, which will have a personal connection with some people, it also has "a considerable political echo" to it.



"We do live in a time where the very notion of objective perception, and facts and truth, is being questioned and undermined by some of our leaders," Proske said. "So, I think what is happening to Mrs. Manningham in this play can be transferred to what is happening in this country, too. This will also give our audiences an enormous amount of food for thought, and hopefully lively discussion."



Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at tchalkias@aol.com, or on Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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