Narcissism has its day at Barrington Stage's 'Gaslight'

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PITTSFIELD — For all the spaciousness of the fashionable 1880s home Bela Manningham shares with her husband, Jack, in Patrick Hamilton's psychological thriller, "Gaslight," there is no place for her to hide from his obscenely cruel abuse.

Especially as played by Kim Stauffer in director Louisa Proske's reliable, well-acted, evenly paced, if draggy in spots, production at Barrington Stage Company. Bela is barely hanging on to any sense of what is real and what is not, let alone self-respect and self-confidence. Things keep disappearing; she is distracted, apologetic, all too eager to please her husband lest he humiliate her in the most embarrassing, emotionally damaging ways imaginable.

Bela's hysteria and twisted sense of reality is tied to her impossibly manipulative, calculating, preening, narcissistic husband, Jack (a chillingly compelling creation by Mark H. Dold), who, Bela and we are given reason to believe, is far more sinister and dangerous than appearances would indicate. While Jack is gone from the house, Bela receives a visit from a retired police sergeant, named Rough (Kevin O'Rourke in a deliciously robust portrayal of a dedicated, compassionate professional on a mission), who is convinced Jack is connected to the 15-year-old unsolved murder of an elderly woman whose precious rubies have never been found. He also persuades Bela that she is not going insane, as did her mother, who died in a mental hospital. Rather, her instability is the result of a systematic plan engineered by her sociopathic husband. You can't help but wonder how much it will take for Bela to reach a breaking point and what will happen when she does — and it does in a scene which a largely narrow-dimensioned Stauffer (more Hamilton's fault than hers) handles with shattering force.

What Rough holds out to Bela is a lifeline, a theory that provides possible pieces to a puzzle Bela has been trying to put together even in her damaged condition.

Hamilton's carefully plotted drama extends from a late afternoon into the late evening hours as the careful, meticulous, keenly observant Manningham finds his tightly wrapped world coming undone. It's his arrogance, his self-absorption that becomes his biggest enemy.

Dold is one of those rare actors who commands a stage simply by virtue of his full immersion into a character. The lines between Dold and character are seamless. Chief among his prodigious skills is his attention to detail — rhythm; voice; emotional expression; physical gestures — tapping with his fingertips the side of a top hat he has put on as he leaves the house for his ritual nocturnal excursion to New York's Tenderloin; an ever-so-light dance step when he comes home; his endless fascination with his reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. He is a man of secrets and calculation, who moves about with the smug air of nouveau riche entitlement.

Poised against him is O'Rourke's Rough who, in more ways than one, lights up the dark confines of the Manningham house. This is a man who loves his Scotch whiskey and perhaps one lump of sugar too much in his afternoon tea. His task is formidable. He needs to build the hapless Bela's trust in him, offer her hope, persuade her that she is not going the way of her mother, that he needs her help to accomplish what he needs to accomplish and he goes about his task with determination, a sense of urgency and an arsenal of charm.

Peggy Pharr Wilson and Ali Rose Dachis are persuasive as, respectively, a kindly housekeeper who feels for Bela and a saucy housemaid who has designs on the master of the house.

This production moves Hamilton's play from its Victorian London setting to Edith Wharton country amid New York's upper middle class in the 1880s — but the texture and feel, the rhythm and syntax of the language, turns of phrase and usage, are far more in keeping with Hamilton's native England. And while, times being what they are, there may be an impulse or two to layer this play with broader social issues, at its heart, "Gaslight" is a plain, old-fashioned, entertaining psychological melodrama and there's nothing wrong with that, especially given a production as ably mounted and performed — more than that in the cases of Dold and O'Rourke — as this.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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