Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 32
 
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
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Music/Theater

A GHOSTLY MENAGE: Elvira (Veronica Siverd, left) returns from the dead to rejoin her widower husband Charles (Aaron Strand) and cause chaos in his new marriage with Ruth (Georgie Sherrington) in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 10.

Marital Chaos Ensues When Deceased Wife Returns From the Dead in PST Season Finale, “Blithe Spirit,” Classic Noel Coward Comedy

Donald Gilpin

To audiences of a certain age, to mention Noel Coward is to evoke images of a man and a collection of plays that epitomize urbane sophistication, elegance, and dazzlingly clever dialogue. The world of Coward — celebrated British playwright, actor, and composer from the 1920s until his death in 1973 — is a world whose inhabitants “dress for dinner” (tuxedoes and evening gowns), a world of expertly crafted dry martinis and epigrams (“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”), ivory cigarette holders, and velvet smoking jackets.

Blithe Spirit, Princeton Summer Theater’s season finale, running through Sunday August 10, vibrantly embodies the quintessential Coward spirit and endures as one of his best loved comedies. Written in Wales in just five days in 1941 after Coward’s London office and apartment had been destroyed by the Blitz, Blithe Spirit is an entertaining glimpse of the human comedy in action: a love triangle, two marriages, and the added bonus of a dynamic supernatural element to spice up the concoction.

A youthful, talented PST company, under the direction of Princeton University senior Lovell Holder, has transplanted this ghostly comedy from Coward’s stylish living room setting to a covered back porch in Wilmington, North Carolina. The lively, entertaining plot and much of Coward’s humor, wit, eloquence, and urbanity are here intact, but Mr. Holder’s production does take the edge off this dazzling farce.

Southern accents and informality might not be the most effective vehicle for delivering Coward’s relentlessly witty, rapid-fire bon mots. In any case, a range of accents — from deep southern to British — and less than perfect diction on opening night made too many lines difficult for the audience to understand. Also, the young actors — all in the vicinity of twenty years old — are understandably hard pressed to embody the kind of jaded, middle-aged sophistication that should characterize Coward’s protagonists. Princeton Summer Theater 2008 has presented an impressive array of hits this season — Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, William Inge’s Bus Stop, J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls — inspired in staging and performance. Their production of Blithe Spirit is down a notch in quality.

“Blithe Spirit” will run August 7-10, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets call (609) 258-7062 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org.

Blithe Spirit is the story of a writer, Charles Condomine (Aaron Strand), who is doing research for a book on the supernatural. He and his wife Ruth (Georgie Sherrington) have invited Madame Arcati (Heather May), a well-known local medium, to hold an after-dinner séance. Neighbors Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Tyler Crosby and Tara Richter-Smith) are also invited.

As Madame Arcati warns, “Anything might happen when I am in a trance,” and, to Charles’ astonishment, his former wife Elvira (Veronica Siverd), deceased seven years earlier, returns to visit from the “other side.” She is visible and audible only to Charles — a fact causing much consternation for Ruth and Charles and much humor for the audience.

Elvira takes delight in wreaking havoc in Charles’ current marriage before plotting to take him with her. Ruth passes through stages of anger, concern for her husband’s sanity, then determination to send her ghostly counterpart back where she came from. The rivalry heats up, the conflict intensifies, and everybody’s plans take a series of unpredictable turns.

Mr. Strand is an articulate central character as the bewildered and beleaguered husband caught between his two wives. Ms. Sherrington brings a British accent (She’s the outsider in this North Carolina community, a director’s note explains.) and a focused, convincing characterization to the role of Mrs. Condomine, but does not always deliver her lines with sufficient clarity of diction. Ms. Siverd’s supernatural Elvira — blond, bubbly, and brazen, looking to enjoy herself and her mischievous activities — provides a vivid contrast to the severity and intensity of her adversary. Ms. May is engaging and amusing as the eccentric medium, and Mr. Crosby and Ms. Richter Smith provide a convincingly droll picture of a bickering, dysfunctional, upper middle class southern marriage. Jessica Taylor, as the bumbling maid, is comical, but often less than credible in her extremes of expression and behavior.

Allen Grimm’s set and lighting design is effective in depicting the Condomine’s covered back porch, complete with potted palms, white wicker furniture, latticework covered with colorful flowers, and all the details necessary to bring this North Carolina setting to life. Sliding wall panels help to achieve the requisite ghostly entrances and exits, and other special effects — with appropriate sound and props by Mitch Frank — bring about the dramatic supernatural happenings (though the final scene on opening night was strangely subdued).

Blithe Spirit, the lightest of comedies written in the darkest days of World War II, is a play about death, as it is also about the ghosts (literal and figurative) of the past that return to haunt us. It is about marriage, fidelity and infidelity, and the inevitable strains of prolonged human relationships.

But above all this most popular Noel Coward comedy is about wit, high spirits, and pure entertainment. As a character from Private Lives (which might be Coward’s best loved play if Blithe Spirit isn’t) declares, “All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant … pity the poor philosophers.” Princeton Summer Theater’s Blithe Spirit offers a happy finale to an outstanding 2008 season.

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