Blithe Spirit has been around for ages, and now is as good a time as any to be reminded why. It’s got a fun premise – imagining love’s reach beyond the afterlife – and with the right performers and the right touch, it’s comforting and provokingly tender. Without giving too much away, the two wives who jockey for Charles’ affection are positioned in the “before and after life,” and the trio has to be particularly strong for the piece to have the punch that it needs. This one has what it takes to get the job done.
Steven Carpenter delivers a sweetly nuanced performance as the hapless novelist Charles, who playfully sets up a séance to research text and lingo for an upcoming novel, inadvertently opening a cosmic pathway which summons his first wife to his doorstep, literally. Carpenter is anchored between two strong performers: Liz Mamana, as current wifey Ruth, has a firm hold on her character’s multi-faceted affectations, and Dani Stoller as deceased wife Elvira (pronounced like a short E, instead of long I), is a classic beauty in total control of her gorgeous assets and knows how to use them to get her way, mainly to hook Charles into eternity. The finely-tuned trio forms the nucleus of this spooky comedy, written with whimsy and delivered with charm.
First performed during Britain’s dark period of war and death, the play was a balm of comfort and humor for a war-ravaged nation and has been continually revived around the world with sparkling resilience ever since. Performers from Rex Harrison to Richard Chamberlain to Rupert Everett have played Charles, while Blythe Danner, Lauren Bacall and Christine Ebersole have flaunted their wares as the pouting and petulant siren Elvira.
The trio at 1st Stage joins a legendary cast of characters and struts with the best of them.
The couple playing friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, Philip Hosford and Jenna Berk have little to do but fill in gaps and serve as pretty window dressing. Unusually amorous for the stiff upper lipped Brits, the Bradmans look longingly into each other’s eyes and can barely keep their hands from grasping each other. Perhaps they’re intended to show what the superficial version of love looks like in touches and coos, in contrast to the burning embers that last through eternity. Whatever their function, Hosford and Berk work well with what they’ve got.
Maureen O’Rourke is a treat as Edith, who scuttles about at a fast clip across the set to finish her chores despite valiant attempts by Ruth and Charles to slow- her- down. Edith’s character proves that there is often more lying beneath the surface than what appears. Evan Crump, interestingly cast as Madame Arcati, thankfully doesn’t go over the campy top, but is so evenly keeled, he/she could actually have a bit more affect to blast the show into hilarity rather than be stuck in quiet zany purgatory.
The old-fashioned gramophone playing Benny Goodman’s swinging hits nestles the show in the 1940’s when Noël Coward was writing it during the Blitz (sound design by Derek V. Knoderer, props by Cindy Landrum Jacobs.) Knoderer also effectively creates the muffled voices that echo as if coming from alternative dimensions, while lighting designer David Sexton assures soft hues of the ghostly realm.
Finding and using the upbeat version of “Always” is a nice touch since most of us (over a certain age of the digital divide, at least) are familiar with the somber and reflective vocal rendition.
Closes June 16, 2013
1st Stage Theatre
1524 Spring Hill Road
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
The set’s oval backdrop is completely painted in clouds as if the house floats comfortably in the heavenly realm designed by Steven Royal who does double duty with terrific costumes. The gentlemen are quite dapper with Charles in tailored suit and ascot, while Dr. Bradman is tuxed to the max. Royal is most attentive to the female characters and accords each with her own look totally aligned with her style and station. Ruth starts off in a dashing white tailored suit of the upper crust class, contrasting with Elvira’s gorgeous flowing dark blue chiffon gown with a cut-away slit skirt portion that reveals just enough lovely gam to send us all into a flutter. Evan Crump as Madame Arcati is comfortably attired in lightweight velour slacks with gold speckled scarf headwrap.
When the séance produces knocks and veiled voices, Elvira’s flowing entrance from the audience is one of many creative and astute directorial moves by Gardner who assures a an effective brisk pace with entertaining set changes fitting the characters and style.
Noël Coward is delightfully adept at keeping attention and focus on the moment, balancing serious issues of life, death, love and loyalty with reflections of “moral untidiness” – such a Cowardesque phrase. This 1st Stage production of Blithe Spirit gets to the heart of his well turned story of everlasting love and shows why and how the play has remained a steadfast favorite for generations, and maybe even more to come.
Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward . Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner . Featuring Steven Carpenter, Liz Mamana, Dani Stoller, Evan Crump, Jenna Berk, Phil Hosford and Maureen O’Rourke. Set and costume design by Steven Royal . Lighting design by David Sexton . Sound design by Derek Knoderer . Prop design by Cindy Jacobs. Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
David Siegel . Connection
Brian Bochicchio . MDTheatreGuide
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Yvonne French . DCMetroTheaterArts