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Murder Most Foul

Insanity and marriage go hand-in-hand in this mystery classic

Phil Gallagher thinks Karina Ferry can't handle the truth.

By Erica Bauman | Posted 1/27/2010

Gaslight

by Patrick Hamilton

Through Feb. 14 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre

Murder mysteries have come a long way from their stodgy origins: The Sherlock Holmes of yore was an eccentric, sure, but also cerebral, and most of Doyle's writing involved long explanations of his thought process. The Sherlock Holmes of today is, well, Robert Downey Jr. And while the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre's production of Gaslight is a commendable effort to return to the intellectual detective story, it shows its flaws in its undeveloped characters, causing its catharsis to crumble.

Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight tells the story of Bella Manningham (Karina Ferry), a woman who believes she is going mad, when she is actually being driven toward insanity by the cruel manipulations of her husband, Jack (Michael Leicht). Jack doesn't want Bella to discover that he searches the forbidden top floor of their house for hidden rubies, the product of a crime he committed years before they were married. These events are brought to light by the appearance of Inspector Rough (Phil Gallagher), a member of the original investigation, and, coincidentally, their neighbor.

Gallagher's Inspector Rough appears late in the first act and instantly opens up the play. He's familiar, the eccentric detective (who heartily encourages Bella to get drunk in order to get some courage), and brings a fast, buzzing energy to the show. Rough is all action as a counterpoint to Jack's mental warfare, blunt and blithely Scottish. But what makes Gallagher's portrayal so engaging is that Rough is the only character to show a spectrum of emotions; at times he uses delicacy and consideration with Bella, at others a pushy sense of humor. Because of these nuances Rough is the most engaging character; he grabs your attention when he enters a scene, and takes it with him when he leaves.

The Spotlighters stage is in the round, and set designer Sherrionne Brown has an exceptional eye for detail, going beyond the main playing space to create the illusion of a wealthy Victorian household. The rich furniture pieces spread like roots from the central stage, and an audience member might find himself sitting next to an end table or curio cabinet. By expanding the illusion of the set, the audience is thrust into the middle of the action, as though it just happened to be visiting the Manningham family and got caught up in the drama of a murder investigation.

While the space strives to include the audience, some dated aspects of the play alienates it. Bella is the epitome of a damsel in distress: dependent upon a psychopath and completely spineless. Even in a triumphant scene, she collapses into hysterics, falling back on a man for comfort and security. Ferry effectively portrays the mental fragility of her character, but there is none of the inner strength necessary to drive her actions.

Her husband Jack, on the other hand, is all things villainous. He is cold and calculating and appears to get a perverse glee from tormenting Bella. If his mustache was long enough, he'd probably twirl it. There is no psychological explanation of the character's behavior: He is the villain of the play, and thus will do all things villainously. Which causes you to wonder, why the hell would anyone marry him? Leicht appears to enjoy Jack's unprovoked cruelty, and he certainly has presence and power, but there is no depth to his character. There are moments in the play where Jack is affecting the caring, concerned husband, but there is no softness to make it believable, or even to hold in contrast to his cruel nature. For a show about intrigue, the characters are portrayed shallowly good or evil, so that by the time the lights go up, you can't help but wonder: Where's the mystery?

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