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Angel Street By Patrick Hamilton

Directed by Gregg W. Brevoort

Penobscot Theatre Company

Bangor, Maine


the Bangor Daily News
Victorian thriller stirs up suspense
By Alicia Anstead
Creative team makes ‘Angel Street’ shine

Penobscot Theatre’s new production of Angel Street overflows with suspense

For a Victorian thriller, Patrick Hamilton’s “Angel Street” offers little mystery to audiences. The plot and villain are revealed almost immediately. The murder takes place 15 years earlier. The missing rubies in the story turn up handily. There’s just no whodunit in this ornate parlor.

So how is it that Penobscot Theatre’s new production of “Angel Street” overflows with suspense?

Director Gregg W. Brevoort has the answer. In a production running through Sunday at the Opera House in Bangor, he features a smart cast of actors and a powerful creative team to create a delicious evening of elegantly spooky chills. The key is not to turn “Angel Street” into gross melodrama but to keep it contained and psychological, formal and fluid, raising the stakes - and weapons and eyebrows - subtly and with mounting terror.

Plus Chez Cherry’s elaborate set is richly draped and wallpapered in shades of ruby red complemented by dark-wood antiques, old portraits, crystal and paintings. Combined with the alternating sepia tones and white lights by lighting designer Lynne Chase, the production is visually engrossing and bespeaks careful technical attention. One brilliantly placed mirror reflects the actors as if they are ghosts in a sea of black. The only jarring element is a heavy-handed front door latch that slams percussively offstage.

Set in foggy Victorian London, the story follows the dirty work of Mr. Manningham, a clandestine criminal who torments his wife in the hopes of driving her mad and uncovering a stash of jewels hidden in the house. Michael Mendelson does this with tall, meticulous malevolence and every time he is in the room, the air turns tense. He is a sadistic bully, using tenderness as the first step toward a cruelty that emotionally cripples his wife and manipulates his servants, played protectively by Alison Cox and kittenishly by Elizabeth Van Meter.

What exactly attracted Bella Manningham to this fiend in the first place never is clear, and here is where the script of “Angel Street” smacks of film noir hokum. Bella is a devoted, if daft, wife living in a house where, unbeknownst to her, a fierce murder has taken place and where, unquestioned by her, the gaslights in the main room dim nightly. She figures that someone is in the attic and she suspects it is her husband, but, until the night of the play, she never has trusted her instincts. She is, after all, haunted by her mother’s path to madness.

Fortunately, Anne Penner portrays her as naive, agitated and bedeviled, rather than pathetic, which is a vital interpretive gift to the audience. This script requires that certain questions be shelved for two hours — even though the question of Bella’s helplessness seems to us today to be easily addressed: Fight back!

But for anyone who has been under the spell of an abuser or the hand of a tyrannical oppressor, Penner presents both a brokenness of spirit and a faint glimmer of hope in a sensitive and resonant reading of the role. The dignity of character comes only in part from Penner’s impressive vocal command. She embodies the role with depth and sympathy and, though she cannot make Bella any smarter, Penner does make her real.

John Thomas Waite, as Rough, the Scottish sleuth who arrives on the scene as part wizard, part guardian angel, sparkles with wit and bluster. He has his mental dukes up in defense of Bella, and he puts up a boisterous fight. Like Mendelson, Waite wracks the nerves but it is because his character is on a giddy mission of mischief and justice —- and he pushes every scene right to its exciting edge.

If you can get past the belabored passages in the script and the predictability of the period piece, this is a fine rendition of an old chestnut that set the standard for a generation of stage thrillers.

An interesting historical side note to “Angel Street”: The play opened in New York on Dec. 5, 1941. Given that it was an import from London and that World War II was raging, the backers were so sure the piece would fail, they printed only three days’ worth of tickets. Two days later, Pearl Harbor was bombed. But “Angel Street” went on to become one of the longest running non-musicals on Broadway. In 1944, another war-torn year, it was made into the popular movie “Gaslight” starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. The lesson, again in wartime, is that we should never underestimate the importance and value of cathartic escape the arts offer. Penobscot Theatre’s “Angel Street” stands up to that task.

Penobscot Theatre will present “Angel Street” 7 p.m. April 10, 8 p.m. April 11-12, and 2 p.m. April 13 at the Opera House. For tickets or information, call 942-3333.