Ask me how best to describe Sir Noël Coward’s style and I’ll quote you a line from Blithe Spirit: it’s “a dry martini that’s dry enough.” That bon mot also perfectly communicates what’s required when staging the 1941 comedy, which infuses Coward’s aristocratic world with a supernatural flair. Unfortunately, Carly L. Bodnar’s erratic production for Hedgerow Theatre Company largely remains earthbound.
Comedy with commentary
While researching the occult, novelist Charles Condomine (Jared Reed) engages Madame Arcati (Penelope Reed) to lead a séance at his country estate in Kent. He gets more than he bargained for when the dotty medium conjures the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Maryruth Stine), who died prematurely of a heart attack. Elvira’s presence particularly vexes Ruth (Jennifer Summerfield), the current Mrs. Condomine, who suspects that her spectral rival may have returned with a dubious motive in mind.
Ever the stealthy social commentator, Coward uses this paranormal ménage á trois to explore the fraught institution of marriage. Charles may wish to drive Elvira back to the grave, but he also seems pleased with his newfound luck — now an “astral bigamist,” he has the best of the spiritual and physical worlds. At the same time, he and Elvira fall into a pattern of brinkmanship that suggests their union was never as strong as they believed.
Also a widow, Ruth watches as the illusion of her happy and mature second marriage collapses. Perhaps the strongest indictment comes in the form of Dr. Bradman (blustery Michael Fuchs), who casually engages in what we now recognize as textbook verbal abuse towards his wife (Stacy Skinner, who’s mostly inaudible).
Striking the right balance
Blithe Spirit should engage the serious undertones that pierce its prevailing air of levity. The play must be funny, but never merely so. Bodnar — who’s done excellent work for the feminist-centric ReVamp Collective, which she also co-founded — would seem an ideal choice to draw out the weightier elements that permeate Coward’s script. But she too often goes for the easy laugh, leaving some darker moments on the table. I would have liked more acknowledgement of Ruth’s gradual awakening to the unfulfilled reality of her marriage.
Pacing issues further hamper the three-act evening, which includes two overlong intermissions. The first act unfurls at a brisk clip, but the second and third tend to drag. Long scene changes zap the forward momentum and rising tension, as Charles becomes more and more desperate to exorcise Elvira.
These inconsistencies extend to the production’s technical elements. Although Justin Baker’s eerie lighting strikes the right balance between realism and mysticism, Shaun Yates’s drably furnished drawing-room set looks a class or two below the Condomines’ upper-crust status. Sarah Mitchell’s costumes are too contemporary; the cut and tailoring of the men’s suits suggest mid-century, while Elvira’s bell-sleeved satin frock calls to mind 1970s loungewear. Only Madame Arcati’s delightfully zany outfits fully capture the character’s personality.
In praise of Penelope
Similarly, Penelope Reed is alone in offering a completely realized performance. A tireless 72, her Madame Arcati flits around the stage with stunning dexterity, totally immersed in her spiritual trance. She humorously dispatches Coward’s dithering dialogue, but stops short of presenting the old spiritualist as a lunatic or a charlatan. Jared Reed and Susan Wefel, as the simpleton maid Edith, come closest to matching her energy.
Tall and striking, Stine looks the part of a garrulous ghost, but she could do more to imbue Elvira with an alluring sense of mystery. Summerfield delivers her lines with a bland American affect, causing Coward’s idiomatically British turns of phrase to fall flat. As a pair, they convey neither competition for Charles’s attention nor camaraderie in pointing out his faults.
But the lack of stability across performance and production styles never eclipses the sharp wit of Coward’s text. Blithe Spirit has endured for nearly eight decades by being both entertaining and boundary-pushing. I hope the next production I see balances these elements more smoothly — like a perfectly mixed martini with just the right amount of kick.