Dreamwell Theatre to present production of ‘Angel Street,’ play that defined gaslighting

From April 14-22, Dreamwell Theatre will present “Angel Street” at the Artifactory; the thrilling Broadway play defined the term “gaslighting” through depictions of a manipulative marriage.


Averi Coffee

Kristina Ratkawski and Andrew Cole perform during a dress rehearsal of Angel Street in the Trinity Episcopal Church building on Monday, April 3, 2023. The show will open in the Artifactory Building on Saturday, April 15.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

The term “gaslighting” is popular in social discourse, typically used in the contexts of political campaigns or toxic relationships. This weekend, the roots of this term will see the light.

Dreamwell Theatre will present its production premiere of “Angel Street” on April 14 at the Artifactory. The production will run until April 22.

Originally written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938, “Angel Street” is a play set in the Victorian Era about a manipulative marriage between characters Jack and Bella. The story revolves around the psychological abuse Bella experiences and her search for strength and freedom from her marriage.

“Angel Street,” also known by its film adaptation title “Gas Light,” premiered on Broadway in 1941. It is one of the longest-running non-musical Broadway shows in history and is also known for coining and defining the term “gaslighting.”

Gaslighting refers to the psychological manipulation of someone into questioning their reasoning and sanity.

“[Gaslighting] has been going on probably since the dawn of time, but especially as we begin to be more and more aware of the effects of abuse of all varieties: mental abuse, emotional abuse, and various forms of domestic abuse,” Jen Brown, the production’s director, said.

Dreamwell reached out to Brown about directing the play based on her previous acting and directing experience with local theater. The first production she directed was “As You Like It,” a play presented by the Iowa City Community Theatre in 2017.

“Angel Street’s” main characters Jack and Bella are portrayed by Alex MacKay and Kristina Rutkowski, respectively.

Rutkowski’s first interaction with the play was when she read it over Zoom with other local actor’s spring of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from meeting in person. Not only did she enjoy the play, but she also worked with Brown on other projects in the past, so she decided to audition.

Rutkowski said the play’s language has been the most rewarding and challenging aspect of the production to fully grasp. The script often includes unusual wording and several repetitions of lines.

“Some of it’s not necessarily the way we speak, and so some of the lines just seem funny,” Rutkowski said. “But, yeah, I think it’s been surprisingly fun to work on.”

The play’s plot thickens when Bella is visited by a detective who helps her discover what her husband has been hiding. However, it is Bella who must navigate an escape from her marriage and be her own savior.

Although Jack could easily be considered nothing more than the villain of this story based on his manipulation of Bella as he tries to cover up his crimes, MacKay hopes that audiences will also find conflict in disliking him.

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“I think that he is someone who is torn with his conscience,” MacKay said. “He’s not just a terrible person. There’s this little kernel of a boy in there that is almost sweet, but I’m probably giving him too much credit.”

In most situations, particularly those of domestic abuse, gaslighting typically involves making the other person in the relationship feel isolated. In the play, Jack effectively cuts Bella off from her loved ones, leaving her dependent on him with no choice but to believe everything he says.

Brown wants audiences to be aware of this tactic as a means of purposefully making someone vulnerable to psychological manipulation so that they can recognize the signs of gaslighting and find help.

Local theater has always brought communities together for accomplished entertainment, but “Angel Street” encourages community members to also unite against abuse.

“This is still a very universal story,” Brown said. “And I felt that given public discourse, now is not a bad time to put [“Angel Street”] back on the stage.”