Fear is in short supply this time of year. Oh, there are the shocks and frights delivered by slasher-film maniacs and those motion-sensitive yard displays, but real terror — the kind that makes you hold your breath as long as you did when you were a kid in bed on a dark night — has fallen by the wayside.
Except, that is, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. If you see its production of Patrick Hamilton's Angel Street — and by all means, you should — you'll once again shudder in the clammy grasp of fear.
Hamilton's 1939 play (later made into the Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer vehicle Gaslight) is set in 1880s England. Bella Manningham (Janie Brookshire) and her husband Jack (Clark Scott Carmichael) live in a big London house and would perhaps be happy together, save for Bella's growing madness.
Bella's insanity manifests with her hiding things — a grocery bill, a small painting — without ever recalling that she's done so. Her inability to recall her pranks is seen as truculence by her husband, but for Bella it's much worse. Her mother ended her life in an asylum, and Bella is terrified that she's doomed to the same fate.
- Eric Woolsey
- Angel Street.
To modern eyes, Jack is part of the problem. The social dictates of the era place the wife under the husband's thumb in all matters, and Jack is a right dick about asserting his dominance. Carmichael plays these scenes as a stern teacher applying a necessary corrective to a distracted student; it's not his fault he exists in this system, is it?
But then you see the way he openly flirts with the younger housemaid, Nancy (Rachel Kenney) — who is quite saucy. You find yourself wondering why he can't extend the same sympathy to Bella.
Brookshire is very good as Bella, who freezes in position like a rabbit under the dog's eyes whenever Jack tightens his jaw in her direction. She flutters and gasps and collapses when confronted about her state of mind.
It's a simple set-up, but it grows ever more complicated. One night a visitor arrives after Jack leaves and tells Bella he's a retired police detective. He also assures her that he doesn't think she's going mad at all — Jack is behind her pranks, and Detective Rough (Geoffrey Wade) has a strong suspicion why. Furthermore, if Bella will help him, Rough can prove it.
Of course, we're seeing all of this from Bella's point of view, and she is sleeping when the detective first arrives. We wonder: Are Rough and his genial manner and self-confidence in his sleuthing abilities nothing more than a happy dream of safety for Bella? Scenic designer Wilson Chin adds credence to this theory with his brilliant set. The Manninghams' middle-class Victorian home suddenly expands right before your eyes, and then shrinks back to the solid reality of four walls when Jack appears. Long-time Rep lighting designer Peter E. Sargent aids Chin in this endeavor with a fiendishly cunning setup that conceals far more than it reveals.
It would spoil the fun of Angel Street to tell you what happens next, but rest assured it will hold your full attention. Director Jenn Thompson steadily increases the tension of the plot without increasing the pace, leaving the audience with a distinct shortness of breath. The more we know — or think we know — the more we fear a coat that is left out in the open, and the repeated dimming of the home's gaslights.
Have you ever been so scared in a theater that you start to stand up — presumably your brain has decided that it is time to run — and have to fight yourself to stay seated? Angel Street made me lurch forward for a speedy exit not once, but twice. Fortunately my knees were still wobbly from the adrenal burn of the first instance, so all I could do the second time was shake. There's nothing like a good, old-fashioned Halloween terror.