British potboilers of yore can still take an audience for a lovely ride, albeit on clackety cobblestones, if the theater company doing the revival has the recipe. Anyone who relishes PBS’s reruns of the 1980s “Sherlock Holmes” mysteries knows that.
Proving the point quite happily is Olney Theatre Center’s “Angel Street,” a.k.a. “Gaslight,” Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 thriller-melodrama. Olney’s artists know their way around such material, with all those cups of tea, repressed desires and saucy housemaids.
The sturdy staging by longtime Olney Associate Artistic Director John Going has the essential ingredients for the souffle lined up: a script that measures out equal doses of mystery, psychology, sin and criminality, and actors and designers who understand the material and tackle it straight on, with no spoofery.
Quite often, “Angel Street,” a three-act play tightened here to two acts in two hours, rises from sturdy to startlingly tasty, especially when actor Alan Wade shambles on stage. His Mr. Rough, a retired police detective with an intriguing theory and a handy pocket flask, appears more than a third of the way in. He brings a good-humored life force that fills scenic designer James Wolk’s oppressive Victorian parlor, with its dark furniture and yellowed lace antimacassars.
It is 1880 London, and Rough has come to visit the put-upon Mrs. Manningham (Julie-Ann Elliott), whose withholding, manipulative husband (Jeffries Thaiss) has nearly convinced her that she is losing her mind, what with all the odds and ends she supposedly misplaces, and which he accuses her of stealing. He virtually imprisons her in their dank house. When her husband goes out one foggy evening, Rough appears, an uninvited stranger, to offer Mrs. Manningham a ray of hope. He doles out the many secrets behind her suffocating marriage in tantalizing bits. Wade gives Rough a blue-collar accent and the genial mien of a chap who appears to have all the time in the world but is in a bit of a hurry, all the same.
If the plot sounds familiar, it should. Hamilton’s play debuted in England in 1938 under the title “Gaslight”; it premiered on Broadway in 1941 as “Angel Street.” There was a 1940 British film, “Angel Street” and, most famously the 1944 Hollywood version, “Gaslight,” directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and a young Angela Lansbury as the housemaid. That film altered Hamilton’s script a lot.
Olney’s “Angel Street” may be old-worldy fun, but it has dramatic ballast, too. Thanks to the cast and Going’s direction, the production gives off pungent little whiffs of Strindberg and Ibsen, which Hamilton surely intended in his portrait of the Manninghams’ marriage. Elliott’s Mrs. Manningham is a frantic, tortured, gaunt soul, so unsure of herself that she assumes her husband must be right about her growing “weak mindedness.” Thaiss’s Mr. Manningham never raises a hand to her, but the effect of his accusations and paternalistic put-downs holds as much sting as any slap. And the subtle actor’s sly glimpses at the derriere of their bold, insinuating maid Nancy (Dylan Silver) as she bends over the coal fire says volumes. Laura Giannarelli, too, does a fine job sketching in a working woman’s inner life as Elizabeth, the cook. She seems stoic, proper and passive at first — but wait.
Gas-fueled lamplight figures prominently in the mystery, particularly in the way it dims when Mrs. Manningham suspects someone has surreptitiously entered the house’s sealed-off top floor. Lighting designer Dennis Parichy manages to make electric stage lights give off the softer, spookier luminescence of gas.
Olney treats this old play — not a masterpiece, but a good piece of entertainment — with respect. Just relax your melodrama filter by a couple of clicks and sit back. You’re in good hands.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by Patrick Hamilton. Directed by John Going. Costume design, Liz Covey; sound, Jeffrey Dorfman. About 2 hours, including intermission. With Michael J. Fisher and Matt Boliek. Presented through July 14 by Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney 20832. Visit www.olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.