When the Princeton Summer Theater opened a fortnight ago with “A Little Night Music,” we knew it was going to be a good season. Now that the second show, “Gaslight” has opened, we all know it is going to be a great season. The psychological mystery thriller has been popular with community groups, colleges and small professional houses ever since it premiered (two days before Pearl Harbor, in 1941.)
Back then it was titled “Angel Street,” and the Broadway production had a very young Vincent Price as the mysterious semi-sadist Mr. Manningham. Three years later the Hollywood film changed the title back to its London roots, and the movie was called “Gaslight.” Also changed was the concept of the villain, the role was played in the film by Charles Boyer (opposite Ingrid Bergman.) And incidentally Angela Lansbury, then 18 years old, played the sassy maid, Nancy and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.
The Broadway production ran for almost 1,300 performances, one of the longest runs for a non-musical in New York history. The current staging at Hamilton Murray Theater, on the university campus, runs just two weeks and the suggestion here is that you call quickly and grab tickets fast. This is a knockout revival: A magnificent cast that completely recreates the mood of London in the 1880s, superior technical work, including a wonderful set design by Jeffrey van Velsor, and exciting lighting by Alex Mannix (it’s not called “Gaslight” just for the sound of it.) And strong, confident direction by R.N. Sandberg, who comes as a guest director with credits as a playwright as well.
Author Patricia Hamilton has created a genuine masterpiece of excitement. A young married woman is seriously being threatened. She thinks she may be going slowly mad (her mother, it seems, was shunted off to an asylum.) Certainly her husband thinks so, and he tries to persuade the two maids of his worries. There are problems, you see: things seem to be missing, pictures are taken down from the wall and hidden behind chairs, for example; a bill hasn’t been paid, but no one can find it.
But wait. A stranger appears at the front door, claiming to be from Scotland Yard and offering possible hope. If indeed he can be believed.
Without fine acting, the piece can well become little more than melodrama mush. But this group has extraordinary talent. In this production, for example, Sarah Paton in the delicate role of Mrs. Manningham, is sensational. It is a part filled with traps for the foolhardy. It is easy to overact or step into the pathos readily available. Ms. Paton rises far above it. A lovely performance.
And matching her beautifully is Evan Thompson as her husband. He too avoids the temptation to pose or orate. He is every inch the British gentleman without a hint of Vincent Price. Maeve Brady is superb as Elizabeth, the older maid toughened by years of service. And Ariel Sibert is delicious as the sassy tart of a house maid who know her appeal to men.
Andrew Massey is more American D.I. than Scotland Yard, but it works well here — a nice contrast. He plays the role with an air of supreme confidence, more so, in fact, than Leo J. Carroll (who played the original Broadway role all those many years ago).
So a company that handled “Night Music” with apparent ease now hits the old melodrama out of the park. I, for one, can’t wait two weeks for “Boeing, Boeing,” a modern situation comedy.
“Gaslight,” Princeton Summer Theater at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Thursday, July 12, through Sunday, July 15. $25. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.