Story: Novelist Charles Condomine, who hopes to gather research material on the spirit world for his next book’s subject on ghosts, invites local medium Madame Arcati to a dinner party being hosted by Charles and his second wife, Ruth, for Dr. and Mrs. Bradman.
Madame Arcati is welcomed by the Condomines’ addle-brained maid, Edith, and provides quite a contrast to the staid, upper-class affair with her eccentric appearance and behavior. While she notes to Charles that she cannot guarantee a spirit will appear, she enthusiastically begins a séance immediately after dinner.
When she receives communication with her other-world contact, a young girl named Daphne, she inadvertently summons the spirit of Charles’ late first wife, Elvira. The feisty Elvira, however, can be seen and heard only by Charles, leading to some awkward moments for the novelist with Ruth and their guests.
As Elvira becomes more determined to intrude into Charles’ present life, he beseeches Madame Arcati to return to his home to again intervene. Unfortunately for Charles and the exasperated Ruth, however, Elvira isn’t going to be dismissed all that easily. How exactly does one go about exorcising a ‘blithe spirit’?
Highlights: Act, Inc., which often presents a time-honored classic in its annual summer schedule, opts this year for a production of Noel Coward’s enduring comedy of manners about well-to-do sorts sometimes behaving badly.
Other Info: In a departure from its previous 30-plus seasons, Act, Inc. this summer is mounting just one production instead of two, but for a longer single run. This doubtless gives the cast and crew additional time to iron out any rough edges in its presentation of Blithe Spirit.
That’s important, because the Sunday matinee on opening weekend felt surprisingly flat. Laughs at the well-attended show seemed sparse throughout its three acts (performed with just one intermission) for whatever reason.
Director Jane Sullivan benefits from a handsome set designed by Tim Poertner which looks every bit like a posh place for the upper crust in Kent in the summer of 1941, the time in which Blithe Spirit takes place. There are several elegant paintings adorning the back wall, a large fireplace, marble floor, handsome book cases and decorative curtains, including one in front of doors opening to the outdoors. Liz Mischel’s properties design adds several quaint touches to enhance the appearance.
It’s pleasantly illuminated by Michael Sullivan’s lighting design, which is most effective when reflecting the shimmering presence of Elvira, while Tony Elliot’s sound design presents a pleasing collection of Big Band tunes. Additionally, Melissa Wohlwend’s costumes range from the swanky attire favored by the Condomines and Bradmans to Edith’s servant uniform, Madame Arcati’s colorfully clashing clothes and Elvira’s slinky gown.
Such is the setting for a Coward comedy, in which the cast’s delivery of the urbane writer’s clever and sometimes caustic wit is often the primary feature. Sullivan’s cast in this production moves at a rather languid and occasionally plodding pace, even considering the genteel nature of the work. A little acceleration wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Kathy Rush does bring energy and panache to her role of the wacky Madame Arcati. She makes the most of the character’s bizarre behavior, clomping around the room in contrast to the refined gait of her stately companions, gesticulating amusingly while Arcati gets “in the mood” for a séance.
Sarajane Alverson is amusing as the buttoned-down Ruth, especially when she reacts to comments made by her husband to Elvira, whom Ruth doesn’t see or hear until Charles requests Elvira to spirit around a vase of flowers. Alverson’s reactions are exactly what one would expect under the circumstances and her delivery wisely underscores that comic concept.
As Elvira, Annalise Webb enjoys messing with Charles’ mind, although one might hope for a bit more sassiness and verve in such an intriguing character. Joe Cella certainly captures Charles’ snobbish behavior, although if he often seems too laid back, given Charles’ circumstances.
Tim Naegelin and Liz Mischel serve pleasantly as the genial Dr. Bradman and his proper wife, enjoying dinner with their ritzy friends, while Amanda Brasher is entertaining as the high-octane Edith, who may be more than she initially appears to be.
Blithe Spirit is one of Coward’s best plays, running for nearly 2,000 performances when it debuted in London's West End in 1941. Here’s hoping that Act Inc.’s current presentation can pick up the pace and bring more vitality to this comedy classic as it richly deserves.
Play: Blithe Spirit
Company: Act, Inc.
Venue: Emerson Theater, J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts, Lindenwood University, 2300 West Clay Street, St. Charles
Dates: June 15, 22 at 8 p.m., June 16, 17, 23, 24 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$20; contact 636-949-4433 or LUBoxOffice.com
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb