Review: ‘Blithe Spirit’ at Spotlighters Theatre

British comedies considerably older than Noel Coward’s 1941 Blithe Spirit enjoy frequent, high-spiritedly successful revivals. Think The Importance of Being Earnest or Charley’s Aunt (a sprightly production of the latter is currently playing at Fells Point Corner Theatre). Blithe Spirit, despite its own highly successful history, is beginning to show its age to a greater extent, as the creakiness of Coward’s comic mechanisms takes its toll.

Julie Press (Ruth), Melanie Bishop (Elvira) and Thom Eric Sinn (Charles) in Spotlighters Theatre's production of Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography.
Julie Press (Ruth), Melanie Bishop (Elvira) and Thom Eric Sinn (Charles) in Spotlighters Theatre’s production of Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography.

Part of the problem is the play’s length. Spotlighters Theatre’s production clocks in just under three hours. Thoroughly developed, complex characters (e.g., Long Day’s Journey Into Night) or deeply emotional music (e.g., The Most Happy Fella) can carry an audience through an evening of that duration. When, as dramaturg Paul Gerczak notes, Coward sought to make his characters as unsympathetic as possible – Coward himself said the play intentionally had no heart – the length becomes problematic.

The leading characters are Charles Condomine, a novelist, his current wife Ruth, and his deceased wife Elvira, who is “materialized” by the local medium, Madame Arcati. The trouble with the trio of leads is not so much that they are unsympathetic; it is that they are tedious, a fault more of the script than of the actors.

Coward has them make the same complaints about, and engage in the same quarrels with, each other time after time. He repeats jokes: how many times can Charles say something cutting to Elvira (who is visible to him but not to Ruth), with Ruth taking umbrage, thinking his comments are directed at her? How many times can Ruth or Madame Arcati talk in the direction where they think Elvira is located when Elvira has moved somewhere else? These repetitions not only undermine the humor – despite flashes of Coward’s wit, the show simply does not seem as funny as it once may have – they add unnecessarily to the play’s length.

All that said, Spotlighters’ production is a competent one. Director Fuzz Roark made the interesting choice of transferring the action from early-’40s London to early-’40s Savannah. It’s not a long jump from an affluent British household to an affluent Georgia household, only the accents and some geographical references need change. The cast handles their thick Southern accents well and consistently, though they may slow the pace to some extent, and Coward’s witticisms sound sharper, to my ear, in the original play.

Charles (Thom Eric Sinn), self-absorbed and not infrequently pompous, expresses his ego as a Southern gentleman should, through good manners and breeding. He feels gratified as that ego is stroked by the attentions of his wives when they indulge his whims and cater to his demands, while at the same time finding them perpetually annoying. As Ruth accurately comments, he does not understand female psychology.

Ruth (Julie V. Press) is an equally well-bred Southern lady, her dearest wish being to rule her domestic domain. She shows an increasing tendency toward domestic tyranny. Her reaction to Elvira’s presence is, perhaps inevitably, territorial.

“Well-bred” is not a term that anyone would apply to Elvira (Melanie Bishop). Boundary-free to a fault, implicitly sexier than Ruth, Elvira is a drama queen always seeking center stage in Charles’ life. She is also a trickster who would do credit to a Coyote or Raven, capable of causing fun, mischief, and great damage. As the first half of the play wends its leisurely way, it is Bishop’s performance that injects a charge of energy.

Suzanne Young (Madame Arcati) in Spotlighters Theatre's production of Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography.
Suzanne Young (Madame Arcati) in Spotlighters Theatre’s production of Blithe Spirit. Photo credit: Spotlighters Theatre/Shealyn Jae Photography.

Madame Arcati is the most interesting character in almost any production of the story, capable of taking the show over, as did Angela Lansbury in the 2009 Broadway revival. A medium who believes in her occult art, but is far from confident of her ability to practice it, Suzanne Young’s Madame Arcati displays unalloyed delight when one of her machinations actually works. In terms of Laura Nicholson’s costuming as well as the character’s personality and Young’s portrayal, Madame Arcati is an island of color in the subdued palette of the Condomine household.

In Spotlighters’ intimate theater-in-the-square, Roark’s realistic set creates the respectable Condomine home, full of dark wood tones, staid furniture, and glasses and other props that fit the social station of the couple. At times, the posts at each corner of the stage and the concentration of furniture on one side where actors sit for sometimes extended periods create sightline issues from one part of the seating area or another.

There is a strong undertone of misogyny in the play. Madame Arcati is dotty, dinner guest Violet Bradman (Lindsey Schrott) is an airhead, the family maid (Shaneia Stewart) readily accepts her place, and Elvira is unstable and dangerous. No wonder that for Charles, bliss is his final escape from the world of women. That too is a theme that may well have passed its sell-by date.

Running Time: Two hours and 55 minutes, including one intermission.

Blithe Spirit plays at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore MD, through December 23 and again January 4-20. For tickets, call 410-752-1225 or go online.

Paul Saar, Stage Manager; Alan Zemla, Scenic Artistic; Jess Anderson, Lighting Designer.