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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

'Angel Street' is theatre at its best

Julie-Ann Elliott and Jeffries Thaiss star in Olney Theatre Center's Angel Street. Photo by  Stan Barouh
Like a Victorian Alfred Hitchcock,  Angel Street now playing in its last week at Olney Theatre Center will keep you on edge with the story of a woman driven nuts by her husband who seeks to undermine her self image for his own advancement.
Imagine that.
Without question the presentation will earn Helen Hayes nominations for its excellent drama, convincingly portrayed by all the actors, my favorite who was Laura Giannarelli,  "Elizabeth," the maid whose English accent and mannerisms were spot-on. (Kudos to Nancy Krebs, the dialect and vocal coach.)
Set in England in 1880, the dialogue soon discloses that Mrs. Manningham (Julie-Ann Elliott) is at the mercy of her husband (Jeffries Thaiss).  Like a dog which sits on the floor at her master's knee, Mrs. Manningham, whom Ms. Elliott interprets to perfection, cries for attention, a pat on the head, some affirmation that she, filled with self-doubt which the arrogant Mr. Manningham consistently encourages, is not such a bad wife, after all. 
Is she?
Accompanying the heightening suspense is Mr. Manningham’s increasing nefariousness and playgoers' shrinking doubt  about which character is the antagonist.
The scene is a night in London at the Manninghams' (Maddinghams'?) residence, a Victorian home filled with pictures, mantle pieces, china, and plentiful gaslights which brighten and dim depending upon whims,  strategically placed over the mantle, in the parlour, stairwell, and hallway, rooms which each have special roles in the stunning single set created by James Wolk.
The large, draped window lends more of a heavy presence to the oppressive room where Mrs. Manningham begs her husband not to leave her again on his nightly jaunts through the city.
He teases his pet with a morsel of meat (theatre tickets): “Now darling, be a good sort while I go out”(again and enjoy my pursuits while you languish here), he says, becoming angry that she has "misplaced" something else, a bill.  If she continues to act like a woman, he warns, he’ll have her dismissed and sent away, just like her mother was sentenced to a mental out house!
"Please don’t lock me in it again,” she implores her master about her bedroom on the second floor (which construction is similar to the distinctive upstairs bedroom seen last winter at the Kennedy Center's Metamorphosis).
While Mrs. Manningham ponders her fate confined in her chambers, a dangerous liaison unravels downstairs with comedic relief provided by “Nancy” (Dylan Silver), an excellent characterization of a maidservant who responds quite aggressively to an amorous advance.
To Mrs. Manningham’s rescue (or maybe not) comes a gentleman, an Inspector Rough (Alan Wade) who says he’s in hot (many years) pursuit of a criminal who may inhabit her house. Why should the mistress of the house believe a total stranger who invites her to join him for drink and unwind?
Indeed, what’s a poor girl to do?
The “sentencing” Mrs. Manningham faces at the whim of her spouse is not that far removed from present day for it was only in the last century that in the United States, with a stroke of a pen, husbands, weary of their wives, could commit them to institutions, especially if they did not “obey” or if they acted too womanly, and then, the husband was free to, perhaps, remarry ? (In Mrs. Manningham’s case, with her money).
What a convenient marriage! Who would have thought?
(The great-aunt of a former colleague was “committed” in the 1900s by her husband to the Trans-Alleghany Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia where she died, perhaps murdered by an inmate, my friend suspects, and is buried on the grounds in a forgotten, weed-covered site. The institution closed as a mental ward in 1994 but not before it housed 2,400 patients in the 1950s in a place built for 250 in the mid-1800s, and not before some patients were confined to cages in the 1980s.  The place is open for public tours which some tourists find too eerie to visit.)
Young women today may find it hard to believe a single person could “commit” another to years of depravity and life’s end in an institution. It happened then.  Does it happen now?
The play was written by Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962) whose Rope (1929) Alfred Hitchcock used for his film of the same name.  Directing Olney's Angel Street (originally titled Gas Light (1939)) was John Going.  Dennis Parichy directed the extraordinary lighting which changes constantly. Sound director was  Jeffrey Dorfman who utilized the hauntingest (not in my dictionary either) clock you'll ever hear tick and dong.  Liz Covey was costume designer and Carissa Thorlakson, wig director.  Rounding out the cast are Matt Boliek and Michael J. Fisher, policemen who aid the inspector.
All, in all, ready for Broadway and certainly, not to miss.
Olney Theatre is a marvelous venue, with plentiful free parking, pleasant outdoor seating for intermission and pre-performance enjoyment, costumes and china displays, and a crew eager to supply at reasonable prices  munchies and your favourite beverage which you may take to your seat.

What:  Angel Street
When:  Now through July 14, 2013
Where:  Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832
How much:  Tickets start at $31
For more information:  301-924-3400

(With apologies to Mae Axton, Tommy Durden, and Elvis Presley)

Well, since my baby left me,
I found a new place to dwell.
Its down at the end of Angel Street
In my bedroom of hell.

You make me so lonely baby,
I get so lonely,
I get so lonely I could die.

Although it's seldom crowded,
You still can find some room.
Where broken hearted lovers
Do cry away their gloom.

You make me so lonely baby,
I get so lonely,
I get so lonely I could die.

Mrs. Maddingham's tears keep flowin,
And she's always dressed in black.
She's been so long on Angel Street
She will always take him back.

You make me so lonely baby,
I get so lonely,
I get so lonely I could die.

Hey now, if your baby leaves you,
And you got a tale to tell.
Just take a walk down Angel Street
To my bedroom of hell.

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