The psychological drama Gaslight has been seen in cinematic form as a movie starring Ingrid Bergman and dramatic form as a play by Patrick Hamilton. The plot concerns a husband who manipulates his wife into doubting her memories and perception, thus driving her closer to insanity. The play’s name is taken from this manipulation technique, which is known as “gaslighting.”
Barrington Stage Company in Downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is currently staging a revival of the play through Sunday, Oct. 22 on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. The play, directed by Louisa Proske, stars Kim Stauffer and Mark H. Dold as the two main characters.
Recently, Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Stauffer about her pivotal role of Mrs. Bella Manningham. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.
What attracted you to this role and this play?
I’ve been playing a lot of pretty tough characters lately, so when I auditioned for Bella, I was hoping for the chance to investigate the fragility and vulnerability of the role. Bella operates from a core of immense love and trust for those around her. She loves without judgment. It’s a rare and beautiful quality — one that makes her both appealing and a target for her husband’s manipulation.
I was attracted to the challenge this presented to me as an actor. How can pure love go so horribly wrong? And, what happens to a person when trust becomes so twisted and abused that they lose their sense of self? Bella has lost her bearings, and it leaves her broken open and vulnerable to the elements of the world around her. Still, she desperately clings to the hope that things will be better in the end.
Is it a difficult role to play each night?
I actually think this might be one of the most difficult roles I have ever had the opportunity to tackle each night, but I love digging into it. There has to be a constant motor in Bella generating fear, confusion, terror at every moment. Her mind is so busy trying to make sense of things. There is no rest and no real outlet for all of those emotions until the final moments of the play. Her mind begins to unravel, and I have to bring myself to that precipice each performance. Maintaining a heightened level of emotion and fear for so long takes a huge amount of focus and energy. It’s a marathon, but it is exhilarating at the same time.
What do you believe the play says about society? What do you believe is the audience’s takeaway?
From Bella’s perspective, I hope the audience will take away a deeper understanding of the realities of gaslighting. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone lose their mind, and I think the temptation is to say, ‘Why doesn’t she see what he is doing to her?’ ‘Why doesn’t she just leave him?’ ‘It’s her own fault for letting it happen.’ But gaslighting is so tricky, so subtle that it can sneak up on you. You don’t see it coming, but cut to a year later. And your sense of truth and reality has been eroded. I hope this show gives the audience a new compassion for those who are living in relationships that are psychologically abusive. On a broader note, I hope it will be a reminder that we must hold fast to and seek out truth in a world of alternative facts and fake news.
What’s the best thing about working for Barrington Stage Company?
Barrington Stage Company feels like family to me, and it is when I am a part of an artistic community like this that I do some of my best work. I am so happy to be back on the boards here! One thing I deeply appreciate about this company is that they choose material that is relevant and undeniably important in relation to the political or social climate in Pittsfield or the broader country. Artistic Director Julianne Boyd is a brilliant visionary who sees what needs and issues the community is facing. She leans into it and is drawn to material that puts those issues on the table so everyone can begin to talk about them in new ways.
Being in a Barrington Stage Company production means I am part of something so much bigger than myself. The story is told, and if it is told well, the ripples go out. There is change, dialogue, new perspective. You can feel a momentum in the work, and that is thrilling to be a part of.
How did you prepare for the role of Mrs. Manningham?
Initially, my research included articles about gaslighting, narcissism and people who survived gaslighting relationships. I also spoke with friends and family who had lived through it. I did a lot of free-form writing in the mind of Bella by picking moments from the play when she would have been trying to make sense of something. When I write without censoring, things emerge about my character that I couldn’t have come up with otherwise.
Throughout rehearsal I also did a good bit of physical exploration. I needed to find out how the madness took hold of her. I wanted to decipher where in her body it lived, and how it grew in moments of distress. There were gestures that evolved throughout the rehearsal process. They were external discoveries that created pathways to deeper internal work.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Gaslight continues through Sunday, Oct. 22 at Barrington Stage Company in Downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Click here for more information and tickets.