After three – count ‘em, three – local productions of Blithe Spirit during 2018, Maryland audiences are well aware of the fact that it takes more than fear of Christmas to make a Noël Coward. And while Baltimore’s last community theater rendering of the play closed less than three months ago (read Bob Ashby’s review of the Spotlighters’ production here), Vagabond Players’ current iteration carries a special credibility: Vags is the only company that can claim to have been of legal drinking age when Coward’s play made its West End premiere in 1941. Celebrating an astounding 103rd season at their ninth address, Vagabonds’ Blithe Spirit is their third mounting of the show – their first since the turn of the (most recent) century.
Noël Coward claimed in his autobiography to have penned Blithe Spirit in less than a week’s time, scarcely touching the text again afterward: “Beyond a few typographical errors I made no further corrections and only two lines of the script were ultimately cut.” His characters parry, exchange polite derision and wit that is so veddy veddy English, and do it all in formal dinner attire with pinkies effortlessly extended.
The setup is as simple as it is classic: Charles Condomine (Eric C. Stein) is a writer, living in the Kent countryside. He isn’t the sort of writer most of us know; he’s the sort of writer who has a maid and a cook. Charles and his second wife, Ruth (Barbara Madison Hauck) have invited friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Duncan and Dianne Hood) to a dinner party featuring the novelty of a séance provided by local mumbo-jumbo peddler Madam Arcati (Maribeth Vogel). During this occult event, possibly as a result of their maid, Edith (Alyssa Wellman Houde), being bitten by a radioactive spider, we find that Charles’ late first wife Elvira (Kerry Brady) has crashed the party à la Jacob Marley … though her intentions are far less clear.
Veteran director Steve Goldklang helms an impressive cast and design team. Immediately upon entering the theater, one is reassured that no attempt has been made to adapt, update, or reinterpret Coward’s canon-fodder in any way. Roy Steinman’s drawing room set is gorgeous, all wallpaper and wainscoting. His crew of Moe Conn and Jay Demarco did amazing work constructing the best hyper-realistic period scenery we’ve seen in town since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Center Stage. Adrienne Gieszl’s lighting is masterful: a chilling shift of palette accompanies Elvira’s appearances so effectively that we only imagine that there’s a fog machine. Sound by Eric C. Stein (pulling double-duty) is authentic and true to its world. “Ghost Costuming” by Mary Bova of A.T. Jones & Sons is spectacular, as are the ghost hair and ghost makeup. No program credit is given for dialect coaching, but it’s worth mentioning that all the actors do a convincing job with their English accents. Houde’s cockney, in particular, is pitch-perfect.
Hauck and Stein immediately establish a much-needed brisk pace and also demonstrate a highly engaging chemistry. The Hoods provide very solid support, and Vogel is a whirling wild card, playing a medium whose personality is closer to extra-large. Much of the play belongs to Brady, whose Elvira is at turns playful, cajoling, sexy, threatening, and always otherworldly.
But for me, it’s Houde who steals the show. She punctuates the staccato repartee of our martini-drinkers by dropping a great big hammer of unfailing physical awkwardness and razor-sharp comic timing. One particularly wonderful moment finds her nervously carrying a tray loaded with cups and saucers; she trembles just enough to produce the absolute perfect china rattle. It’s also worth noting that Houde delivers the best scream we’ve heard on stage in many years.
Running Time: Two and a half hours including one intermission.