In an old church with vaulted ceilings and sealed-up archways perched on a nondescript corner of the suburb of White Bear Lake is the Lakeshore Players, a 48-year-old community theater with a dedicated audience (the house is frequently completely sold out, a condition that more sparsely attended urban theaters would envy) and occasionally ambitious theatrical productions. This season, for example, will include Molière's Tartuffe, an acid-etched indictment of organized religion that rarely makes it onto the community stage. Currently, the Lakeshore Players are presenting Patrick Hamilton's Angel Street, a thriller set in Victorian London and borrowing heavily from the conventions of the melodrama.
The church has a suitable atmosphere for such a production. If one is in an imaginative mood, one might imagine monks sealed in behind the building's doorways, gibbering softly. In fact, I would recommend imagining such a thing. Otherwise, one notices the audience, who are your standard community-theater fans. Sharing soda pop with this crowd in the basement of the church during intermission, one may easily feel as if she'd accidentally wandered into a Sunday social, which is distracting, since Angel Street tries for an atmosphere of melodramatic hysteria. There is neither melodrama nor hysteria in this church basement, just an endless succession of oh, for funs and you betchas. To recap: Remember the gibbering monks....
Fortunately, there is a fair amount of hysteria onstage in the lead performance. Sara Truesdale plays Bella, a woman who is being driven mad by a husband who keeps removing paintings from the wall and hiding little items of jewelry, and then angrily demanding to know what she has done with them. There is something appropriately Victorian about this scheme, and the play's conceit that a slight bit of untidiness might drive a husband into paroxysms of rage while driving the wife utterly batty. In one marvelous scene, the husband (played as an amiable sadist by Rod Kleiss) notices yet another "missing" painting. He rises, trembling, turning away from the wall. "I will not look at it," he tells her, fuming. "Just put it back where it belongs."
This is not a great production, but it is an earnest one, and melodramas must be played in earnest. Patrick Hamilton's script is worthy of some frenzied scene-chewing. In the 1940s, Hamilton specialized in writing single-room thrillers for the stage. He enjoyed great success with Rope, a play based on the notorious Leopold and Loeb murders (later turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock), in which he successfully generated several hours of suspense out of stuffing a body into a box and leaving it onstage for the entire performance. Hamilton shows a similar taste for such garish elements of popular-crime melodramas in Angel Street, which was adapted for the screen twice, in both instances renamed Gaslight. Both film versions are highly regarded, and it's no wonder, as the script is a doozy--overstuffed with lusty maids, philandering husbands, lockets with secret compartments, desks with hidden drawers, corpses with slashed throats, and gas lamps that signal the presence of a murderer.
The play is heavy with dialogue: Most of the action consists of the phlegmatic Inspector Rough (played by a garrulous Mike Shaw) stepping from behind the curtains, opening his flask of whisky, and telling stories of past mayhem. These monologues, while charmingly written and performed with great comic panache by Shaw, fly past us, leaving impressions of mysterious goings-on, much as when Sherlock Holmes will babble about his past cases, such as: "Here's the record of the Tarleton murders...and the singular affair of the aluminum crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the clubfoot and his abominable wife...."
Certainly, Rough's compendium of monstrosities proves too much for the beleaguered Bella to take in, and Truesdale plays the character at such a high pitch of terror and bewilderment that the poor woman almost seems to crack in half onstage. She alternates between imbecilic, doting wife in her husband's presence and terrified crime victim in the company of the police. By the end of the play, she scarcely seems able to form a coherent sentence. This sets up the play's climax, which is delicious, placing the husband at the mercy of his tormented wife. "Am I mad?" she sputters malevolently. "If I were not mad, would I be able to help you?" Fate has turned against the sinner, and he has gotten his necessary comeuppance. It is a very satisfying message to hear in a church.
The Jungle Theater returns to two of its favorite characters with Gertrude Stein and a Companion, which first appeared locally at the theater in 1992 (and has enjoyed additional productions at the Theater Garage and the McKnight Theater). As in every Twin Cities production of this script, Claudia Wilkens plays Stein and Barbara Kingsley plays Alice B. Toklas, and the Jungle finds them fit, cheerful, and chatty, given to sudden fits of giggling at their own jokes. This despite the fact that one of them, Stein, is a ghost.
Win Wells's script is just one of several detailing this famous literary relationship--in fact, the Guthrie Theater will be cosponsoring a traveling production of another Stein/Toklas play in March--but Wells's approach to the caustic duo is gentle. As played by Wilkens and Kingsley, the pair is more cuddly than thorny, even at their most barbed. They recount highlights from their celebrated life, making googly eyes at each other as they fondly recall their years together.
It's all very sweet, but also a little disappointing. Both Wilkens and Kingsley are performers who are capable of enormous nastiness onstage, and both Stein and Toklas possessed razor-tipped wits. Hints of it abound, such as when Toklas offers her withering assessment of Hemingway as "fragile," but these moments are rare. Mostly, the pair talk about fine art and go out for picnics like an old middle-class couple. It's like watching a nature documentary about piranha in which all the deadly fish do is write each other love notes: Eventually, we want to see them bare their teeth and shred an ox.