Tricks of the light

Review by Sean McQuaid

Gaslight
Watermark Theatre, North Rustico
July 15, 2023

In recent years, the Watermark Theatre has aimed for a mix of classics and newer works with more diverse and inclusive perspectives. This often means alternating between oldies and modern fare; but some shows check both boxes, like Watermark’s slick new production Gaslight

It’s a new version of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 hit British play Gas Light, which enjoyed a long Broadway run as Angel Street (1941-1944) and was also adapted in other forms, notably as two respected movies: the UK’s 1940 version and the USA’s 1944 remake, both titled Gaslight.

This new Gaslight, written by actors Patty Jamieson and Johnna Wright, debuted at the Shaw Festival in 2022 and reinterprets the story through a feminist lens, giving its distressed damsel a larger role in rescuing herself. Victorian newlywed Bella (played here by Risha Nanda) adores her apparently doting husband Jack (Benton Hartley), but she’s also troubled. An orphan haunted by her mother’s history of mental illness, Bella fears for her own sanity when she suffers seeming memory lapses, hears mysterious noises, and notices her house’s gas-fueled lights dimming inexplicably.  

Complications include the tragic history of their London home, reportedly the site of a brutal murder and jewel robbery before their tenancy, a history their taciturn housekeeper Elizabeth (Marlene Handrahan) knows ominously well; and the arrival of new young maid Nancy (Kristena McCormack), a lazy troublemaker who clearly fancies Jack and may have darker designs on the household. 

The new Gaslight omits the police detective who intervenes in the original story. This furthers the revamped play’s feminism since older versions wallow in mansplaining, with Jack and the policeman competing to define what’s happening and determine how Bella should handle it. Is she going mad or is someone trying to drive her insane? This question underlies every version of Gaslight to some extent, even inspiring the modern verb “gaslighting” in reference to insidious, sanity-eroding manipulation. 

With no police around, the new Bella must do her own detective work; but the Jamieson/Wright script takes shortcuts here, such as Bella randomly stumbling upon a critical clue and Nancy later getting recklessly confessional on a level akin to Jack Nicholson’s courtroom meltdown in A Few Good Men. The text also makes Elizabeth’s intentions so ambiguous and inconsistent that her portrayer is left to do much of the character-building via subtext. On the other hand, the new play’s versions of Bella and Jack are improvements, the former less passive and the latter less overtly sketchy. 

Hartley excels at nice guy roles so he’s smoothly convincing as a supportive spouse, but there’s enough brooding intensity lurking just beneath that blandly placid exterior to fuel the story’s darker turns as needed. Nanda shows range aplenty as Bella, equally effective as starry-eyed lover, despairing neurotic and cagey reluctant sleuth. Meanwhile, Handrahan grounds Elizabeth in a sense of dignity with glimmers of perceptive insight, while McCormack leans into Nancy’s shamelessness with crowd-pleasing snark. 

Director Martha Irving (full disclosure: daughter of my past collaborator Ron Irving), set designer Cory Sincennes, costume designer Julia Kim, lighting designer Alison Crosby and sound designer Pat Caron all do great work here in terms of establishing time, place, atmosphere and mood with eerily versatile lights and sound, attractive period outfits and a darkly handsome Victorian Gothic household set. 

Said set features unique, highly reflective walls, conjuring a hall-of-mirrors look that’s visually fascinating, potently claustrophobic and thematically apt; and depending on how they’re lit, these walls are often semi-translucent, sometimes even fully transparent, enabling effects ranging from subtly spooky to jarringly startling. Such beguiling tricks of the light are Irving’s secret weapon in a compellingly off-kilter show where audience and characters alike are never entirely sure of what they might see.