There are a lot of bold ideas in North Coast Repertory Theatre's production of Gaslight that will likely come to fruition in the run. On opening night, I was left with fewer answers and unresolved intrigue. However, what is theater that does not risk or dare and inspire questions of its audience? This is one of the many we are left with after the performance.
Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton is a 1938 thriller that inspired two movies and imbedded itself into American vernacular to define psychological violence that seeks to brainwash its victims and make them question how they view reality. The story itself is a definition of the modern term and is a reason to see the show. NCRT's version brings a show set in the late 1800s to modernity and, in its casting decisions and preshow trigger warning of "white man on Black woman violence," gives it new relevance and checks a box for diversity. NCRT also took care to invite the Humboldt Domestic Violence Services team on the night I attended. Both decisions set the tone for a certain level of intensity.
Bella (Olive Dunn) and Jack (Jonathan Moreno) live in their three-story home where paintings move, lights flicker, papers vanish and medication is the answer. Their relationship is strained by these happenings as Bella is forced to believe that she and her mental disposition are to blame. She is in a spiral where truth is confiscated and alternative facts amplified by Jack's dominance. Their maid Nancy's (Sara Jane) — um — strong enticement of Jack adds to their tension and is another truth disavowed by her husband. With the help of Bella's more benevolent maid Elizabeth (Heather Hulbert) and a lively inspector (Noel August), explanations, history and protection are afforded to Bella to help her understand the reality behind her ailments.
Though all the actors have good moments, it is a challenge to understand what is individually at stake for them. The dynamics necessary to create the proper tension needed for the thriller are flatlined. I wanted more: more mania, more fight with a clear understanding of what it would mean to lose, more exasperation that leads to a greater release when scenes subside and more unpredictability. I never felt fear for any character, neither in the circumstances of the play, nor the blocking meant to heighten the danger. As a result, some powerful lines and phrases, like, "My emotions are running high," and "My cold and calculating tone," feel like they are gaslighting the audience as they are delivered in opposition to the actors' states. The inconsistency invites an over-examination of other aspects of the production that would normally be masked in the heights of the thriller. The Slytherin green set design by Kelly Hughes coupled with an amazing chaise lounge (that I want in my house) and impressive décor in the room is gorgeous. What is beyond the doors and where are the curtain rods, though? The text at times seemed in opposition to the design, and an inexplicable couch in the audience that may have been part of the set felt like an afterthought or maybe a last-minute change that couldn't be carried backstage. The costumes by Olivia Gambino are stunning, particularly Nancy's, which highlight her duplicitous character. Dunn's blushed dress that spoke to Bella's battle with fatigue. Yet, a couple pairs of pants and some stylings make me question not only the era, but the characters of the actors who wore them. Still, the lighting design by Brian Butler sufficiently followed the cues the script asked for and the incomparable Anna Gillespie does an incredible job of ensuring the proper touch needed to maintain the drama of the scenes in delicate transitions. Hughes as director, stage manager, sound designer, properties, set construction and scenic designer does an admirable job wearing all those hats.
The story is timeless, and told in a way that helps people understand why the term "gaslighting" is so provocative and relevant today as it pertains to many silenced experiences. It names an often misunderstood abuse and witnessing the show through this lens adds to its necessity. The questions and conversations that will undoubtedly arise from the experience need examination and are well worth the discussion and ticket price.
NCRT's production of Gaslight shows Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., Nov. 11-20. Call (707) 442-6278 or visit ncrt.net.
Tiggerbouncer Custodio (he/she/they) is an empowered queer Indigenous Filipino artist whose works have been seen on Humboldt stages and elsewhere.
Dell'Arte alum Christopher Kehoe delves into the fringes and Fox News for the roots of Christian Nationalism in the one-man show Jesus Qhrist Nov. 4-5 at the Carlo Theatre. Visit dellarte.com.
Redwood Curtain Theatre stages The Lifespan of a Fact, a comedy-drama about a literary nonfiction writer and a fact checker wrestling with the truth from Nov. 4-13. Call (707) 443-7688 or visit redwoodcurtain.com.