Universal button-perfect delivery of delicious Noël Coward lines takes Carly L. Bodnar’s production of Blithe Spirit at Hedgerow Theatre miles into gratifying comic territory, but rollicking payoffs come from the cast’s physical antics and Goldilocks-right facial reactions.
The maid, played by the redoubtable Susan Wefel, responds to an admonition to moderate her “on the double” approach to all motion by freezing and slowing to a sleepwalking pace when one of her employers enters. Her wide-eyed, tight-lipped caught-in-the-act expression adds to the fun.
Wefel’s maneuvers display the right use of exaggeration and self-consciousness, especially when she backs out of a room, often with loaded tray in hand, in a measured tiptoe. This device is so deft, it works even when executed more times than would generally be deemed wise. Wefel shows a level of frazzle that sets up a late Coward plot twist that usually seems pulled from a hat.
Blithe Spirit is Coward’s comedy about a writer who, while researching a psychic’s professional and histrionic techniques, invites Madame Arcati, a famous medium, to a dinner that includes a séance. During that séance, with the help of Irving Berlin’s tribute to his late wife, “Always,” the writer inadvertently causes his deceased first wife to materialize.
Penelope Reed’s completely delightful Madame Arcati is as light in step and graceful in movement as a ballerina, while offering a wide vocabulary of vivaciousness that signals enthusiasm, excitement, ecstasy, and rapture along with reaction to insult and even genuine hurt. Reed can be excessive to an extent that justifies several characters referring to Arcati, a practitioner of psychic phenomena, as “dotty,” but her performance is beautifully controlled, balancing intelligence and animation.
Intelligence is a watchword of Bodnar’s staging. Urbane Cowardian drollness lives in the readings of Jared Reed and Jennifer Summerfield as Charles and Ruth Condomine, the aforementioned writer and his second, supremely sensible wife, who live in the country between London and Canterbury. Reed is constantly clever, endowing Charles with wit while never straining to make a joke play.
Summerfield’s triumph as Ruth, a more conventional woman than Charles’s first bride, the willful, whimsical Elvira, is how well she matches Reed’s Charles in sophistication and social ease. Summerfield establishes the sense that Ruth is Charles’s equal in every way. She avoids the colorless stodginess that often accompanies the character. It’s evident that this Ruth is as good, if not as exciting, a partner for Charles as Elvira ever was.
Elvira is usually the centerpiece of Coward’s play, but the Hedgerow company skillfully operates as an ensemble, so every character, even Wefel’s maid and the visiting Bradmans, played by Michael Fuchs and Stacy Skinner, are as engaging as the flamboyant Arcati, mischievous Elvira, and stylish Condomines.
Bodnar’s is a thoroughly solid Blithe Spirit, with the dividend that trusting Coward and taking a straightforward route succeeds more than a production that works too hard to be flashy or too preciously to be funny. The humor at Hedgerow seems natural, and the characters, even Elvira, seems to be real folks you might encounter, and enjoy encountering, on an English village street.
Blithe Spirit can be done by the numbers. Coward is nimble enough to provide all the material and plot manipulation necessary for a good time. Bodnar and company keeps things human and engage you by their characterizations. They make the most of Coward, but they create the show and do it with a shrewd blend of liveliness and cunning.
Adroit touches abound in Bodnar’s staging. Among the best is a blink-of-the-eye moment when Ruth, reaching out to Charles, seems to put her hand directly through Elvira, who is standing in front of her and completely invisible to her. Another is Summerfield’s advance on Elvira once she, too, has been made a specter based on Elvira’s shenanigans.
Maryruth Stine gives a breakthrough performance as Elvira. In a role in which she could get away with some of the tics and staccato movement that I associate with her, Stine joins her castmates in keeping her choices and their broadness, in line with the Elvira Coward describes.
Of course, that gives a lot of leeway for grand acting, but Stine resists. Her Elvira is every bit as petulant, childlike, and individual as billed, but, like Reed’s Arcati, Stine suits her actions to the moment and reveals the vivid personality of Elvira without going overboard.
It’s a pleasure to see an actress of obvious talent find the balance between a natural bent for expression and the discipline to weave it into a part. Elvira can easily take over Blithe Spirit, but Stine remains a trusty and congruent ensemble member, contributing mightily and amusingly but serving Coward and Bodnar. The way Stine’s Elvira fits in makes this production flow more easily. Its high points can come from several directions. Elvira gets her due, but Stine knows when the yield the stage to Summerfield or one, or both, of the Reeds.
The supporting work of Fuchs and Skinner is equally elegant. They help make the light chatter Coward provides for the Bradmans and Condomines worth a listen and have the look and air of socially adept neighbors in a small English town. Fuchs has a great and versatile speaking voice and solid presence. He and Skinner make the Bradmans welcome, as opposed to being extras Coward needs to move parts of his plot. Skinner’s poise shows why Mrs. Bradman would be popular among her neighbors and the right choice to attend the Condomines’ dinner with Madame Arcati.
The set by Shaun Yates and costumes by Sarah Mitchell are serviceable without being distinctive, although Mitchell’s outfit for Madame Arcati is fun and perfect for Penelope Reed. Justin Baker’s lighting is more integral to Bodnar’s staging, and Aaron Oster does well finding the accurate sound for the Victrola and voices offstage.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including two 15-minute intermissions.