skip to Main Content

“Gaslight” Turns Up the Heat at Swift Creek Mill Theatre

From left, Axle Burtness, Katherine S. Wright, and Lindsey Zelli

In modern pop psychology, the term gaslighting is used to describe deliberately and methodically influencing another person to doubt their own sanity. It comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband has bullied her into believing she is out of her mind. It also stars Petersburg’s own Joseph Cotten as a man determined to get to the truth.

But first came the play, written in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton and currently kicking off the 2022-2023 season at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. Lindsey Zelli is cast as the fretful wife and Axle Burtness as her dashing but devious husband. Together with a cast of supporting characters, they expertly pull the audience into a story as mysterious as it is compelling. 

Zelli’s portrayal of Mrs. Manningham is a memorable one. She crumples under the shouts and insults of the man she loves, but more notable are her subtler reactions to his smaller cruelties: a passing reference to her troubled mother’s fate, an unabashed flirtation with another woman right in front of her. And as the story progresses, she slowly unrolls a tortured mind that is inching its way back to clarity. 

As Mr. Manningham, Burtness is a rollercoaster of moods that leave his wife walking on eggshells. In one moment, he is showering her with affection and delighting her with plans for a special outing. In the next, he is icily demanding that she correct a problem he won’t even identify, leaving her to frantically guess what has made him so angry. His swiveling from tenderness to fury and back again bring the audience into his wife’s confusion. 

Joe Pabst with Zelli and Burtness

Joe Pabst stars as Rough, the police inspector who approaches Mrs. Manningham with a mystery that she may be able to help with. His presence brings some levity to the story of a miserable marriage, and Pabst plays it beautifully with a performance that balances jovial humor and fatherly affection. 

The Manninghams’ two servants appear throughout the story, having seen and overheard it all as only servants can. Katherine S. Wright shines as the impudent but impressionable young Nancy, and Debra Wagoner is outstanding as Elizabeth, whose fear is palpable in moments when she alone can keep her employer safely in the dark.

By the time two policemen (Gordon Graham and Quan Chau) arrive for the dramatic conclusion, the audience is as harried as the characters. Mr. Manningham’s relentless interrogations of his wife have become genuinely confusing for all within earshot, and his increasingly furious voice casts a tense stillness across the room. 

Throughout the play, the apprehensive mood is elevated by the skill of Swift Creek’s technical staff. Each act is punctuated by an unnerving violin staccato—and of course in any production of Gaslight, the lighting is its own indispensable character.

Debra Wagoner with Zelli

While tickets are available to see the play on its own, you’d be wise to also make reservations for the dinner served downstairs. The food at Swift Creek Mill is always a crowd-pleaser, from appetizer to dessert, and there are specially crafted cocktails based on the show. 

Gaslight is at Swift Creek Mill Theatre until October 15, so make those reservations quickly. As Mr. Manningham himself says in Act I, “You seem wonderfully pleased with yourself, Bella. I must take you to the theatre more often.”  

For tickets and showtimes, go here.

Lia Tremblay is an Emmy-winning writer and editor who specializes in healthcare and science topics. She has written several articles for RFM, including reviews of local theatre productions. She lives in Colonial Heights with her husband and their son.

Back To Top

There are reasons 17,000 families have signed up for the RFM eNews

Exclusive Contest Alerts | New Issue Reminders | Discount Codes and Savings