In the stage directions for Gaslight, someone forgot to write that acts two and three should be just as interesting as the rest of the play.
Theatre Calgary’s newest play opens in Victorian Britain, with Bella Manningham (Kate Hennig) nervously needle pointing while her husband Jack (Blair Williams) lounges on the couch. He instructs her to ring for the servants so more coal can be added to the fire. Bella protests, saying she can do it herself, but Jack insists. It is through this initial conflict the audience sees Jack’s domineering personality, which tries to drive Bella mad by being loving yet cruel.
Jack then leaves the house to conduct some "business." Then, Sergeant Rough, a retired police officer, arrives and excitedly tells Bella about a murder that occurred in the house.
Bella slowly begins to trust Rough and tells him about the gaslights. Whenever Jack leaves the house, the lights start to flicker which means someone else has turned a light on. She has never found the light, leaving her to conclude the light must be on the top floor, which is forbidden to her.
Up until this point, the play is interesting. Just before intermission, the lights start to flicker and a strange pattern of lights visible only to the audience appears on the walls above the stage. An eerie feeling is apparent and the audience spends the intermission in anticipation. However, the final two acts take too long to reach the inevitable conclusion and the identity of the murderer.
Grant Reddick as Rough is overly excited about the murder and doesn’t seemed concerned about Bella and the servants’ safety. He also shows little sign of fatigue after an exhausting search for the murderer. His interest in the case is more like a motorist passing a grisly accident.
As for Williams, there is no subtlety in his performance. His identity and his motives are too obvious. There is nothing for the suspense to build upon and it doesn’t help that he is not present for most of the play.
Thankfully, Hennig does not allow her insanity to overwhelm her acting. It lurks beneath the surface, only present when Jack wants to amuse himself. When she gets to confront Jack, the audience sees the effect of his mind games and her frustration with the rigidity of Victorian society.
Gaslight needs more suspense or a shorter running time. It plays at Theatre Calgary until Feb. 5.