Light My Fire

Swift Creek’s “Gas Light” is a Victorian thriller that still chills.

According to Google Trends, searches for the word “gaslighting” are more popular than ever, with queries skyrocketing since Jan. 2020.

That’s some staying power for a term that has its beginnings in a 1938 play by British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton. Further popularized by a 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Petersburg native Joseph Cotton, gaslighting is a colloquialism for the psychological manipulation suffered by someone when another person presents them with a false narrative that makes them question their own reality.

Hamilton’s thriller has taken up residence at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and under the direction of Irene J. Kuykendall, it’s still in fighting form. Taking place in a London home during the Victorian era, “Gas Light” concerns Bella Manningham, a young woman who married her husband a few years earlier.

The couple has recently moved into their current home, and though they initially give the appearance of upper middle-class gentility, we soon realize that things aren’t as they seem. Before long, Jack Manningham’s efforts to make his wife question her sanity begin to reveal themselves; we learn that he wishes to drive her insane so that he can take part in a criminal enterprise. Bella, with the help of a police inspector, must unravel what’s taking place before she’s institutionalized.

When it comes to local theater debuts, it’s hard to top Lindsey Zelli’s turn as Mrs. Manningham. A recent transplant from New York City, Zelli is nuanced in her portrayal of a woman questioning her own sanity. Especially at the show’s close, we’re not entirely sure just how many lasting psychiatric bruises Jack has left on Bella.

Her frequent scene partner Joe Pabst is excellent as Rough, the police inspector trying to help Bella unravel the mystery. He charms as he portrays a character that’s alternately amused, clever and kind. And as the heavy, Axle Burtness captures Jack’s condescension and manipulation to get what he wants.

Frank Foster’s scenic design of dark wood paneling and Tudor-style windows adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, and Joe Doran’s lighting shows up exactly where it needs to, including the show’s final scene.

Though there’s a moment or two near the end, where Bella is vacillating between her love her husband and her realization of what he’s done to her, that feel rushed, overall, it’s a successful staging.

At a time when we all could use a bit of escapism, “Gas Light” certainly fits the bill.

“Gas Light,” plays through Oct. 15 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway. For information call 748-5203 or visit


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