Noel Coward’s work has been defined as a “combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.” The play Blithe Spirit follows suit. It has moments of cheeky comedy, and few actual bumps, scares, and laughs. Coward said in his notes that when he wrote it, “I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew it would be a success.” He did add that he said it with “disdaining archness” and “false modesty” and likewise Charles Condomine is equally surly and full of himself. Self-imposition much?
The play is supposed to be set in a very upper-crust level of English society, but this production placed it in Savannah, Georgia. The director, Fuzz Roark, in his pre-show speech stated two justifications for this, the problem replicating an accurate accent and place, and that nobody tells a ghost story quite like a southerner. So, instead of being bourgeois English snooty people, they are post-antebellum, socially conservative snooty bourgeois people. Got it.
The play takes place in the house of Ruth and Charles Condomine. They are wealthy southerners who chastise their maid for her rushed manic episodes, telling her to slow down and remain “steady.” After that, they launch into a discussion of his previous wife, Elvira, then invite their friends and a medium named Madame Arcati. Charles is a writer, and one of his characters is supposed to be a psychic who is a fraud. They have paid and invited Madame Arcati to observe her and use her as a template for his novel. As the woman enters a trance, she conjures the spirit of his dead wife, Elvira. The problem is Charles is the only one who can see and hear her and she follows he and his wife around making for a rather uncomfortable living situation. Cue for the hilarity to ensue.
The lead role is cinched by Thom Eric Sinn as Charles Condomine. He shines in this role as a man who cannot be bothered, waving off his inferiors, and previous wives with trivial dismissals. His demeanor is spot on for this role, and he really brings Charles to life. His first wife, Elvira, is played by Melanie Bishop. Her constant strutting, singing, and merriment is in complete contrast to her true intentions, and that is what is demanded of her in this role. She does a nice job of balancing the two well, and only crumbling when required to. His current wife, Ruth, is played by Julie V. Press. I thought she was a perfunctory little hen-pecking wife. She even put her hands on hips with fingers splayed backwards like the feathers on the back of bird. Dr. George Bradman and his wife Violet are played by David Chalmers and Lindsey Schrott respectively. They both do a keen job in their roles, but seem like an odd couple together. Lindsey does get a few laughs as a babbling gossip. Edith, the new housemaid, is Shaneia Steward and she seems frantic when needed, and entranced when required. In between the two we hear and see little of her. And then there is Madame Arcati, played by Suzanne Young. I don’t know if it was opening night jitters, or the length of the play, but she bumbled and fumbled for lines throughout. Perhaps that was the character, always reaching for that which cannot be pinned down. Sigh.
Director Fuzz Roark does a nice job extracting the humor and scares out of this somewhat antiquated story. Costuming was lovely by Laura Nicholson, and I particularly loved the purple dress Ruth was wearing (where can I get one?). The lighting (Jessica Anderson), sound (Lila Chickering, Claudia Henry, Owen Sahnow, and Dylan Sarubin), etc. all evoked the specific time and place, and it helped portray the story accurately. As we entered, the fireplace was crackling rather loudly though- sounding like a snare drum. Someone noticed and turned it off or down after the play went up, so that was commendable.
The majority of my complaint is not with Spotlighters, or the actors, it is with Coward and the material. Spotlighters is known for doing cutesy pop off Broadway musicals and plays, and this one fits that mold. But it is TOO DAMN LONG. The play was 3 hours and 8 minutes long (you read that right) and had the intermission after an hour and fifty minutes. My friend and I got coffee to stay awake for Act 2. Also, the first Act drug a little. Every single line that Charles and Ruth spoke, they repeated later on. I understand trying to drive home a point, but the repetition just elongated the play and did little aid in understanding. Also, perhaps the high British would have helped, but I felt like I was prepping for the SATs. Here are some of the words they used in casual conversation: supercilious, foreboding, blithe, churlish, impetuous, didactive, vehement, and so on.
Coward also writes a magnificent play because he borrowed handfuls of lines from Hamlet! I counted at least seven, see how many you can find! It can be a game!
I also thought when Ruth pops in at the end of Act 2 in the white dress and says, “what the hell does this mean?” It honestly could have ended and been succinct and humorous.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? It is an entertaining evening, just know you need caffeine and snacks to get through the time frame. Coward is a good writer, and Spotlighters does a nice job with the show, it is just a bit old and long for modern audiences. The actors are on point though, and the evening was overall enjoyable. (I)
Running at Spotlighters theater December 14-23, and January 4-20. Running time 3 hours and 8 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.