Enchanted April by Matthew Barber based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
From upper left: Kathy Wohlfield, Mary Ellen Nelligar, Joan Coombs, Stephanie Tanaka; rehearsal photo provided
Wendy Power Spielmann in rehearsal; photo provided
"We are the moderns."
Lady Caroline Bramble is bored with the frivolous life of a high level small-time London Socialite. She is thrilled to join the two somewhat dowdy ladies who have rented a small castle in northern Italy, thrilled because there will be no men in the picture and no need for pretense among the all female household. She is a "modern," a British Julie Andrews if you remember the film "Thoroughly Modern Millie "(the very British Andrews is supposed to be from the American mid-west). She is jaded and yet she is somewhat in love with a man making his way through literary London, a man who turns out to be married and to someone she knows. In Tom Detwilerís production of Enchanted April Lady Caroline pulls off the realization of this love triangle with aplomb and grace and no signs at all of remorse, anger or trepidation. That is the hallmark of this production.
The story is straightforward. Lotty Wilton is unhappy in her marriage to a stuffy middle class man and longs for some personal happiness, an enchantment with life. She finds a soulmate in Rose Arnott whose successful husband is leading a double life under a pseudonym. She has some personal regrets with which she has not come to grips as yet. The two women lease a castle in Italy for a month and then find two more women to share the expenses. In Italy things change for all four women when men enter their daily lives again in this privileged location. Thatís it.
A short while back Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts did this play and while it was fun and had some amusing moments, it was a serious and seemingly lengthy piece in which emotional tensions were extreme and the acting was superb. You cried as much as you did anything else during the show and Diane Prusha emerged, finally, as a true star of the realm.
This current production which ends the Ghent Playhouse season is a different matter. Under the watchful eye and simple direction of Tom Detwiler the play is light and humorous with genuine heartfelt laughter. The scenes fly by while Mary Ellen Nelligar, in the same role Prusha took, emerges here as a new local star. The differences and the similarities are truly amazing and must, in part, be the result of Detwilerís understanding of the characters in this play.
Nelligar is the narrative voice and much of what she tells us in the opening monologue we see played out later in the play. She is not the first such voice in the season: we had first-person remembrances recently in Dancing at Lughnasa, The Boys Next Door and the panto. There was even a bit of it in Clue: the Musical. Without a doubt, even if it was accidental which I doubt, the season has been about memory and the narrative sensibility. Nelligar handles her memory chats with understanding and simplicity. Her love scenes with her husband and her new best friends are charming and well played with that peculiar reality that defines the human race. Nothing mechanical or false ever intrudes on her work.
Stephanie Tanaka is a beautiful Lady Caroline. She also wears some of the most beautiful clothing provided by costume designer Joanne Maurer. This has been a beautiful season for costumes and sets and Maurer has been a major contributor to the wonderful appearance of the season. Likewise the work of Bill Camp, who designed the sets for this play, is really first-rate. Tanakaís gentle qualities are emphasized by her appearance and her surroundings. We can truly feel the pain in her life as she mopes beautifully in the courtyard of the castle. It is difficult not to fall in love with her.
Rose Arnott is played with a dry crispness by Kathy Wohlfield whose voice, face and manner suggest an older woman than the play calls for, but when her true back story is finally revealed that seems to be just the right touch for Rose. Her husband is played by the unlikely Tracy Trimm who manages, as he generally does, to make the casting utterly believable. Here is a very middle-aged man playing the loverís role and here, also, is a successful attempt at doing so. Trimm can be silly or he can be marvelous. In this play we can hear his anxiety over a marriage gone sour, we experience his pain when we encounter it.
Ted Phelps is the other husband in the plot and his transition in Act Two from opinionated, stuffy, over-eager attorney into charming swain is beautifully delivered. Jonathan Slocum in a debut role as the man who owns the castle, paints pictures and falls in love, a bit, with every war-widow in town, strikes a nearly perfect tone for his character. He has a winning stage presence and can make canoodling with an older woman seem like just the thing to do.
As one of the canoodled women, Wendy Power Spielmann practically steals away the play as Costanza, the Italian maid-of-all-work. She is consistently funny and yet warm and supportive when necessary. Every exit, and nearly every entrance she makes gets a laugh. Joan Coombs is Mrs. Graves, the fourth woman shareholder at the castle. Hers is the hardest part, in some ways, as she must be understandably disagreeable, easy to hate and yet sympathetic. Coombs pull off this nearly impossible trifecta. Her Mrs. Graves emerges as a character you will not easily forget.
As a season closer, Mayís "Enchanted April" is easy to take and just the sort of show to interest newcomers to the area, as well as long-term residents, to a theater company that always gives more than one hundred percent in its productions. If accents are inconsistent, if sometimes a hat gets left on stage for far too long, it doesnít really matter. This show climbs up to about 135 percent. It is not to be missed.
Enchanted April plays at the Ghent Playhouse through May 31. Tickets are $12-$15. For information or reservations call the box office at 518-392-6264.