Review: ‘Blithe Spirit’ at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in Center Valley, PA

For his next novel To the Unseen, successful author and socialite Charles Condomine must gather material on the world of the occult, of which he is highly skeptical. So on a lark, “to make notes on the tricks of the trade,” he engages the medium Madame Arcati to conduct a séance at his home in Kent. Hilarity ensues as the offbeat psychic unwittingly summons the spirit of his late wife Elvira and her mischievous ghost haunts the writer and wreaks havoc on his current marriage to Ruth.

Noël Coward’s whimsical British comedy of 1941, Blithe Spirit–which debuted on London’s West End and was later adapted by the playwright for the popular 1945 film starring Rex Harrison–is back on stage at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (where it was last presented in 1999), in an out-of-this-world production that should not go unseen!

Eleanor Handley. Photo by Lee A. Butz.
Eleanor Handley. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Directed by Anne Lewis, PSF’s show has all of the wit and sophistication we expect in a vintage play by Coward, with a first-rate cast that maintains his clever fast-paced humor without missing a beat. The always superb Ian Merrill Peakes, in yet another award-worthy performance, embodies Charles’ likeable and laughable hauteur and flippancy, then becomes increasingly “unhinged” as he is caught in the middle of a power struggle between his two jealous wives–Elvira, who is visible and audible to him alone (and, of course, to the audience), and Ruth, who at first thinks he’s either drunk or mad, as he converses with the apparition. Peakes’ every mannerism, from nonchalantly (and a bit neurotically) wagging his feet, to covering his face in exasperation, to closing his eyes, clenching his jaw, and rubbing his forehead in distress, unerringly expresses Charles’ character, thoughts, and emotions, and fully supports Coward’s razor-sharp dialogue, which he delivers to perfection.

Eleanor Handley as Elvira and Karen Peakes (Ian’s real-life wife) as Ruth are well-matched in their hilarious spot-on portrayals of the antithetical wives. Whereas the down-to-earth Ruth is more straight-laced, proper, and mature, and can’t quite comprehend her husband’s unusual conduct, Elvira is–as advertised!–blithe and spirited, as she floats around the room, drapes herself on the furniture, and delights in the chaos she causes.

Ian Merrill Peakes and Karen Peakes. Photo by Lee A. Butz.
Ian Merrill Peakes and Karen Peakes. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Internationally-acclaimed star of stage, screen, and television, Linda Thorson is absolutely side-splitting as the outlandish Madame Arcati, playing her role with an expert balance between the serious and the ridiculous, performing her bizarre movements and incantations, inhaling tea sandwiches, falling flat on the floor in a trance, shaking off the disbelievers, and ultimately admitting that she doesn’t have a clue how to exorcize the spirits she unleashed.

The supporting ensemble is also top-notch, with entertaining appearances by Carl N. Wallnau and Joyce Cohen as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, friends of the Condomines who are invited to join them for the dinner-party séance, are as dubious about paranormal activity as their hosts are, and become as confused by Charles’ odd behavior with the invisible Elvira as Ruth is. Ally Borgstrom rounds out the terrific cast as the Condomines’ new, young, and riotously inexperienced maid Edith, and Owen Peakes (the son of Ian and Karen) provides an eerie voice-over as a child Madame Arcati communes with from the other side. Under Kate Ingram’s fine dialect coaching, the actors’ British accents are all believable and appropriate to their stations.

David P. Gordon’s tastefully appointed set, with its grand interior arches, staircase, and columns, captures the upper-crust elegance of the Condomines. Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s period-style costumes clearly differentiate between the social classes and the vocations of the characters (with formal wear, fine fabrics, and multiple changes of clothing for the wealthy, a traditional uniform for the servant, and eccentric stylings for the clairvoyant), and between the living and the dead (with a pale palette of platinum blond wigs and grey dresses for the spirits).

Lighting by Thom Weaver and sound by Kristian Derek Ball evoke both the natural and the supernatural elements of the play, set to an authentic soundtrack of Big Band music from the era. Together the artistic team creates a visual and aural masterpiece that complements the show’s stellar acting and direction.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

3. PSF, BLITHE SPIRIT promotional image

Blithe Spirit plays through Sunday, August 7, 2016 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Main Stage – 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, PA, on the Campus of DeSales University. For tickets, call (610) 282-WILL, or purchase them online.

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