NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario — Nobody is coming to rescue Bella Manningham. And that’s a good thing.
Bella, the damsel in seemingly self-inflicted distress at the center of “Gaslight,” has been a source of pity among theater and film audiences for more than 80 years. But when Johnna Wright and Patty Jamieson dusted off the 1938 Patrick Hamilton melodrama, set in 1880, for this year’s Shaw Festival, they envisioned a very different fate for their heroine.
“We didn’t want to change the rules of Victorian society and how they affected women,” Wright said. “Our question was: Is there a way for her to play by these rules and win?”
And so they embarked on an ambitious reboot of the play, keeping the spooky setting (a Victorian sitting room) and the basic premise (is Bella losing her mind?), but jettisoning one major character. Gone is Detective Rough, the canny inspector who sets everything straight and explains it all to poor, poor Bella. The result is a total overhaul, complete with a nifty Act I curtain that forces audiences to spill into the lobby, sputtering, “What should she do now?”
Those smothering rules weren’t confined to the action onstage, said the “Gaslight” director Kelli Fox. “I think the play was originally written for an audience who still expected that demure version of womanhood,” she said. “They wanted a story about a male hero coming to the rescue.”
To some degree, current events have made “Gaslight” more topical but also more predictable. Its very title gives an indication of just how much trust the audience should put in Jack, Bella’s ever-solicitous husband. In fact, the term “gaslighting” — psychologically manipulating people into questioning their own sanity — draws its origins from the play, in which the household’s gas lights flicker and dim on the evenings when Bella is alone, causing her to question her own sanity.
The concept lived on in psychological circles for decades but only burbled into mainstream society in recent years, to the point where the American Dialect Society honored the word as “most useful/likely to succeed” in 2016.
“The weird thing,” Wright said, “is that we started writing this before ‘gaslighting’ became a big thing in the news. Maybe we sensed it was coming.”
In her review of the play for The Toronto Star, Karen Fricker called it “a very satisfying piece of theatrical reinvention,” suggesting that theatergoers “bring a smart friend to this show to share the fun afterwards of combing through what happened, picking up cues and evidence in retrospect.”
“Gaslight” is one of a handful of plays at the Shaw Festival, held in this bucolic town 20 miles north of Niagara Falls in honor of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, to grapple with the idea of gender and femininity this year.
Also at the Royal George Theater is Rabindranath Tagore’s one-act “Chitra,” based on a tale from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, about a warrior princess who temporarily sheds her “manly” tendencies to attract a world-renowned archer. And the festival will expand to its full 11-show repertory next month to include one of August Wilson’s century cycle plays, “Gem of the Ocean,” which features the matriarch to end all matriarchs: the 285-year-old Aunt Ester Tyler. All three works will then run through early October.
For Kimberley Rampersad, who both directed and choreographed “Chitra,” the 1892 play (translated into English from the original Sanskrit in 1913) was a natural fit for the festival: “Shaw and Tagore were both polymaths, and you can feel their politics coursing through their words,” she said. But it is also a reminder that such fits can be found outside the Western canon. “I picked this not to be disrespectful but to prove a point,” she said.
Chitra’s gender fluidity had resonated with Rampersad since she was a young girl: “My parents call me their ‘boy child’ — I know, I know — and my father told me, ‘There is a play about you.’” (In the sort of dizzying cross-casting that is common at the Shaw Festival, Rampersad is also playing the decidedly and eternally feminine Lola in “Damn Yankees,” which also features Jamieson, the “Gaslight” co-writer, in its cast.)
For “Gaslight,” Jamieson and Wright said they had originally planned to simply diverge from Hamilton’s play here and there, but soon realized that a gut renovation was needed to tell the story they wanted to tell. “I don’t know if there’s any original dialogue left in our version,” Wright said.
Another modification involved adding some shadings of good and evil among the play’s female characters. One of the day-to-day stresses that Bella faces is a “new girl,” a housekeeper who is at the very least impertinent and lazy — and possibly a good bit worse.
“It’s pretty boring to make this just a battle of the sexes,” Wright said.
That battle was central to several works by Shaw, who is considered the first major playwright to depict what became known as the New Woman. (Rampersad said her initial exposure to his works came from reading “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” which takes a sympathetic view toward sex work. She remembers thinking, “A man wrote this?”)
Much has been made of the Shaw Festival’s evolving “mandate,” which originally confined its repertory to Shaw and works written during his (usefully long) lifetime. The mandate then expanded to newer works set during Shaw’s life, then grew again to include essentially any play that Shaw might have liked.
As it happens, “Chitra” and “Gaslight” both qualified under the original parameters. (Shaw died in 1950.) But Fox, who spent many years in the Shaw Festival acting ensemble before shifting her focus to directing, remembers feeling hamstrung by many of the roles she was offered here and elsewhere. “There was a time in my mid-30s when I said, ‘I would like to stop playing a naïve child now. Can I be a woman?’”
As it happens, one such part was out there. It just hadn’t been rewritten yet.