Retro dramas abound in Prince George’s County theaters

YouCantTakeItWithYou1GREENBELT – There are several productions in Prince George's County and not far beyond which provide a vicarious return to the 1930s and 1940s - the recent yet increasingly distant past.

Film lovers will recognize “Angel Street” as the basis for the psychological thriller “Gaslight.” This 1938 play is running currently at the Greenbelt Arts Center – appropriately enough, in the very shadow of the art deco Old Greenbelt Theatre, constructed in the same year.

The Hitchcock-style Hollywood film was made in 1944. Yet the period of the play is the Victorian era in England.

“Angel Street” centers a supposedly loving husband who is, in fact, attempting to convince his wife Bella (played convincingly by Susan Harper) and others that she is insane, often because the gaslights used to light the house mysteriously flame up and low.

This incident in the play is the origin of the current expression “gaslighting,” the manipulation of others to convince them that a commonly held view of political and social reality is not so. The lighting director made use of lighting and dimming the stage, mirroring the reality of the play as the gaslights were turned high and low (often by the unseen husband).    

All scenes of “Angel Street” play out in a claustrophobic single period-décor late 1800s sitting room, and for the play to work, Inspector Rough (indeed, a rough but kind-hearted former detective) must effectively reveal various shreds of plot by narration – a murder, a search for jewels and the true history of Bella’s villainous husband. Actor Jeffrey Landou provided these details engagingly plot details, which are handled by flashbacks, and changes of scenery in the film “Gaslight.”  

Another 1930s play, “You Can’t Take It With You,” performed recently at the Laurel Mill Playhouse, illustrated a pitfall of the performance of retro plays: the modern audience’s response to aspects of the play may differ from the original audience. This play, later an Academy-Award-winning Best Picture of legendary director Frank Capra, focuses on a conventional rich banker’s son who becomes a “fish out of water” when he falls in love with the daughter of a large eccentric family. The moral of the play is that to be eccentric and happy is better than to be rich and conventional. After all, “you can’t take it with you.”

Despite an able and enthusiastic director and cast, it was not clear what the play was about for the first act or so. The problem is that 1930’s eccentric comes across as conventional to a modern audience, and the two families (eccentric vs. conservative) both looked like traditional families. The most eccentric thing we find out at first is that the father makes his own fireworks in the basement and wants to shoot them off at Mount Vernon. To modern audiences, this comes across as conservative and patriotic, not eccentric.

The production sets could have been used better to illustrate the family was unconventional: Perhaps pictures of snakes on the wall? After the show, I examined the stage, and there were indeed small pictures of snakes on the sidewall of the stage, but not visible to the audience.  

Before “You Can’t Take It With You” began, the audience was provided an atmosphere for a retro mood as period recordings by the Andrew Sisters and other performers of the era. This technique will also be employed in the upcoming production of “Boston Blackie Radio Plays” at Gaithersburg Arts Barn in two performances on March 22.

A former crook and popular 1940s radio character, Blackie now on the right side of the law helps solve crimes, such as murder and insurance fraud.

In watching this Montgomery Playhouse production, you will not see Boston Blackie mysteries visually acted out; instead, the stage is a radio studio, and you are the audience watching a cast of radio actors perform two “Boston Blackie” plays for audio imagination.   Perhaps readers, too, will enjoy expanding their imaginations to relive the distant and yet not too distant past in some of these plays being performed in our region.


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