In ‘Angel Street,’ Christa Reiber plays a character who experiences gaslighting. The experience hits close to home.
For Christa Reiber, the term “gaslighting” is more than just a political critique thrown around in the last presidential election — or, for that matter, a reference that grew out of the title of an old movie starring Ingrid Bergman. Reiber has experienced gaslighting in personal relationships. She knows what it’s like to experience psychological abuse at the hands of someone trying to make her question her sanity.
That could be some heavy baggage to take into a local community theater production, which she’ll do in the Victorian thriller “Angel Street,” a production of the Kings Players in Hanford’s Temple Theatre that opens Friday, Aug. 27. But Reiber is in a good place in terms of using her past to inform her choices as an actor.
“Angel Street” was the inspiration for the 1944 movie “Gaslight.” (She plays the Ingrid Bergman character.)
Reiber took the time to answer some questions about the play, movie and what drew her to this role.
Q: “Angel Street” is an older play, and the title isn’t as well known as the 1944 movie adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman. Have you ever seen the play? And do you remember when you first saw the movie “Gaslight” and what kind of impact it had on you?
A: I first saw the movie about five or six years ago. I’d been aware of it since I was a child, as my grandparents owned a copy of it, but I hadn’t seen it until I began hearing the term “gaslighting” used to describe a form of psychological abuse. I looked into what it meant and learned that the term came from the movie(s). That sparked my interest.
I first saw the 1944 version you mentioned. It was outstanding. Ingrid Bergman’s portrayal of a woman who was beginning to doubt her sanity was convincing, and heartbreaking. I almost immediately began thinking about how much I would love to see the show done on our stage. Not only did I hope it could potentially be helpful for someone else to see it from the outside, I thought it was simply a very entertaining thriller, a genre that hasn’t been done at our theater in quite a while. A couple of years later I also saw the British 1940 version, which was quite different from the American 1944 adaptation but equally good.
Q: I hadn’t been aware of the origins of the word “gaslight” until I started learning about the play. To me, I only knew it as a political term in which a leader uses false narratives and an alternate reality to manipulate his or her followers. Can you explain the original definition and how the meaning came about?
A: Gaslighting is defined as a form of psychological abuse in which the abuser undermines their victim’s perception of reality with the goal of getting them to question their own cognitive ability and sanity, rendering them easy to control. It can include (but certainly is not limited to) the abuser denying their own words and actions, even in the presence of obvious facts; dismissing the victim’s feelings, manipulating their environment, projecting their own behaviors or feelings onto the other person, and generally devaluing them as a person.
While it certainly can and does happen in a political context, it frequently occurs in romantic relationships. It could also happen in some other family configuration, or a friendship or business relationship. The term came from this play, in which Bella begins to think she is going crazy because of the seemingly unexplained dimming of the gaslights every time her husband goes out.
Q: Tell us about Bella, the character you play in “Angel Street.” It doesn’t sound like she has a very good relationship with her husband.
A: That’s a bit of an understatement! Bella is a great character to play, because although it’s obvious from the outset that she is quite disturbed and anxious about the state of things in her home and relationship, she still has a spark of confidence in her reason. She is clearly devoted to her husband, but she knows that something is quite wrong with the way he treats her. Things are not making sense and Bella is trying to find out why, and as broken down as she is, she still has enough inner strength to persist.
Q: This sounds like an intense thriller. It seems that a production like this needs to have a strong sense of place — not to mention a close attention to lighting design. How do you think this production will look and feel to the audience?
A: I think the audience will thoroughly enjoy the experience. Our director, Hugh Munro Neely, set builders John Rabe and Duffy Caskey, and set decorator Amanda Brayden have put tremendous attention to detail into our set–including, of course, the gas lights, which Hugh designed himself. The play is accompanied by incidental music composed specifically for this production, by our community orchestra’s conductor, Jeff Fritz. It adds a lot to the atmosphere.
Q: Actors often bring a part of themselves to their roles. In the case of “Angel Street,” there’s a strong connection between you and Bella. Can you explain?
A: I’m happy to. I have experienced a fair amount of this type of abuse myself, in more than one relationship. I was interested in the movie originally because I wanted to learn more about gaslighting; how it happens, how to recognize it, how to avoid it in the future. It is very difficult to recognize it when it is happening to you, because of the very nature of how it works. Seeing it as an outsider allows a new perspective and is very helpful in beginning the process of breaking away. Many of the tactics that Jack Manningham uses against Bella are very familiar. It’s a very empowering experience to be able to play the character and know, clearly, that I am not in that place anymore, and not feel re-traumatized by it.
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Q: Gaslighting in the original sense of the term can be a subtle and sneaky way of exercising control over another person — and not just in an intimate relationship. How does someone know when they’re being gaslighted? And is there a way for them to get help?
A: Someone who is being gaslighted might feel like they are constantly second-guessing themselves; I often thought, “I KNOW I’m actually really smart, but I feel really dumb right now”, or “I went into this conversation knowing exactly what I wanted to say… how did my words get so twisted around?” They might frequently make excuses, to themselves or others, for their partner’s behavior. They may feel like something is wrong, but they just can’t put their finger on what it is exactly. They might feel confused and even a little bit crazy.
Some red flags might include hearing your partner frequently say things like:
• “You’re being too sensitive.”
• “You’re imagining things.”
• “You just don’t trust me enough.”
• “Stop overreacting.”
• “I never did/said that.”
• “I didn’t mean anything by that/It was just a joke.”
I’m certainly not a mental health expert, but in my own experience it was very helpful to learn about gaslighting and recognize it for what it was. There are a lot of educational resources available now that we have access to information with the click of a mouse. Keep a journal or other record of the facts that you can refer to in moments of self-doubt. Having supportive friends and family also was crucial for me. In this play, Bella does not escape her situation alone; she has help from a compassionate maid and Detective Rough. Going to therapy was valuable too, and something I highly encourage.
Q: On a lighter note, this will be the first live production from the Kings Players since the pandemic. How did the company stay together during that time? What’s the mood regarding the reopening?
A: We’re all really excited about it! We’ve continued to work together, having our regular board meetings and making a few upgrades around the building. And there was the Spooky Stories series, which Hugh Neely did such a beautiful job of putting together last fall, to keep our patrons engaged.
Q: You’re getting to perform in a remodeled theater. Tell us about that.
A: Yes, our theater is wheelchair accessible now! It’s been quite an undertaking and we’re glad some wheelchair-bound folks may now be able to attend our shows.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: I really appreciate you covering our production! And I appreciate everyone who has worked so hard to make this production happen.
Angel Street, a Kings Players production at the Temple Theatre. Continues through Sept. 19. Tickets are $15.