Saturday, February 23, 2008

“Blithe Spirit”

Published the The News Tribune Feb. 22, 2008

Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” at Tacoma Little Theatre is witty and charming in an old fashioned way. With little of the rollicking, outlandish humor of more modern plays, it is more of a thinking person’s comedy – droll and quite wordy in a thoroughly British way.
It’s the story of a writer named Charles Condomine (Bill Read) who invites spiritualist Madame Arcati (Robin Weakland) to his home to conduct a séance. Madame Arcati thinks he is seriously interested in making contact with the “other side” and has no idea that he’s actually using her as research for his latest mystery novel and that Charles and his wife, Ruth (Marie Kelly) are snickering behind her back. Ruth, in fact, holds it in as best she can and breaks into hilarious guffaws as soon as Madame Arcati leaves the room.

The séance has an unexpected consequence. Charles’s ex-wife, Elvira (Jennifer Littlefield) is summoned from the other side and refuses to go away. She claims she doesn’t even know how to return; but her impish manner indicates that perhaps she doesn’t really want to leave.

Naturally, Charles is the only person who can see or hear Elvira. Thinking he is talking to her when he is actually talking to Elvira, Ruth accuses Charles of being rude to her, and Elvira chides him for being “beastly.” She says he was often beastly to her when they were married.

The next morning Ruth accuses Charles of getting drunk the night before, and he tries to convince her that the ghost of his former wife was in the room – either that or he’s going crazy. Ruth, of course, refuses to believe him.

And then Elvira shows up again to wreak further havoc in their lives. At first it seems she is there against her will, summoned unintentionally by Charles, but as the play unfolds we discover she has more malevolent intentions.

Ruth is jealous of Elvira. When, earlier, Charles told her that Elvira was prettier than she, Ruth pretended not to be jealous and scoffed at the very notion, but it was obvious that she was seething inside. And as the play unfolds we learn that his first marriage was a little more troubled than it might have seemed, and so is his current marriage to Ruth, plus there was an affair or two between the two marriages.

Other characters in the play are Dr. Bradman (James Thomas Patrick) and his wife (Syra Beth Puett) who are dinner guests the night of the séance – Dr. Bradman is even more skeptical than the Condomines – and the delightfully inept maid Edith (Brittany Henderson, who does a great cockney accent).

The whole cast is good, but the real stand-out performances come from the two leading female actors, Kelly and Littlefield. Tall and attractive, Kelly is perfectly cast as the somewhat haughty wife who, in a stereotypical British fashion, tries desperately to stifle both her laughter and her fury. The way she snickers behind Madame Arcati’s back is perfectly delightful, and when she finally vents her anger at her husband and his ghostly ex, it is withering. Littlefield captures the heart of the audience the moment she glides on stage wearing a diaphanous white nightgown that simulates ghostliness while appearing perfectly natural. Apparently she had been wearing that gown when she died seven years earlier from a sudden heart attack. Not an ingénue by any stretch of the imagination, Littlefield is a beautiful mature woman who moves with a dancer’s grace and conveys the ghost’s mischievous nature with a range of subtle facial expressions. Even when she was on the periphery of the action and others were speaking, I found it hard to take my eyes off her.

Also outstanding in a very small role is Henderson as the not-so-bright but charming maid.

“The matter of ghosts is central to the play, and a poll conducted by the Gallup organization in 2005 said that about 32 percent of Americans believe such spirits exist,” said director Steve Tarry. “To please that third of our audience and to amuse the rest, we have attempted to set up a series of rules for ghosts and stay consistent to them, sort of like in ‘The Sixth Sense,’ only for a lot less money.”
The set by Chris M. Roberson captures the look of the time and place – the home of upper crust Brits in 1941. “Blithe Spirit” runs two hours and 15 minutes with a 20-minute intermission. Tarry cut 35 minutes from the original script to make it more palatable to contemporary audiences who have become accustomed to two-act, two-hour plays.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sundays through March 2
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N “I” St., Tacoma
TICKETS: $16.00-$20.00
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

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