This weekend, The Kings Players return to the stage at the Temple Theater for their first production in nearly a year and a half.
“Angel Street” — also known as “Gaslight” — debuts Saturday and will run through Sept. 19. The play was originally set to debut in spring of 2020 but was ultimately postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdowns.
“I’ve missed the theater. I’ve missed my theater family and all the stuff that goes into making a play,” said actress Christa Reiber.
Reiber plays Bella Manningham, a woman whose nerves are stretched to the breaking point due to psychological abuse from her husband, Jack, played by Joseph Harding.
The play debuted in London in 1938 under the name “Gas Light” and was later brought to Los Angeles for stars Vincent Price and wife Edith Barrett. The play is credited as giving rise to the term “gaslighting,” a form of psychological abuse in which abusers present false information to victims with the intent of making them doubt their own memories or perceptions.
Think of an adulterer who gets caught red-handed and exclaims, “It’s not what it looks like.” Or, in the case of the play, a husband that flirts with the help staff openly and later denies it, among other — more nefarious — things.
“This play is very important to me for personal reasons because I’ve been in relationships where this has happened to me,” Reiber said. “When you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard to recognize that it’s actually happening. Someone who’s good at manipulating people can do it in such a way that you don’t realize quite what’s happening. That hasn’t changed from the Victorian era to now. What has changed is now people are more aware of it and I think this being more visible is good. It’s important to realize that abuse isn’t always physical.”
Reiber said that it’s been a unique role for her and hopes that bringing her own traumatic experience to the stage can be cathartic for audience members who may be able to see themselves in the character.
“This is a solid play and it’s an issue that is still with us, both in interpersonal relationships and in the press, at least, in terms of political issues – ‘are our politicians gaslighting us?’,” co-director High Neely said. “It’s still a relevant play. That makes it interesting.”
Neely added that there’s a common misconception about the play and that it’s not so much a mystery as it’s a thriller.
“We learn very early on that the husband is up to no good. But the question is, ‘how in the world are they going to catch him?’ And is the wife, the woman at the center of all this, going to emerge unscathed or is it going to damage her forever,” Neely said.
Usually, the Kings Players have an eight-week rehearsal period, but that time was bumped up to 11 weeks for “Angel Street” due to the extra time afforded by shutdowns. The extra time has paid off, both in terms of performances and simply in learning the bulk of the lines that the actors are tasked with.
“Krista … is on stage for all but two or three very short scenes and has over 80 pages of dialogue to memorize,” Neely said.
Rebecca Jensen plays Nancy, one of the house maids, who may have something of an obsession with the man of the house, as well as ulterior motives of her own.
“It’s one of those characters that’s kind of naughty. Definitely not who I am in real life and I thought, ‘that would be so fun to play.’ That’s the point of theater, right? To be somebody totally different than who you are in reality,” Jensen said.
The play runs Aug. 28-Sept. 19 at the Temple Theater, 514 Visalia St. Tickets are available at https://www.kingsplayers.org. Masks are mandatory for audience members.