By Jeff Ritter
Act Inc.’s production of Noel Coward’s classic comedy “Blithe Spirit” featured clever lighting and mechanical stage effects paired with fine acting. However, the 1941 play overstayed its welcome with an uneven second act.
The plot is straightforward: two well-heeled couples — the visiting Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Tim Naegelin and Liz Mischel) join the host couple, Charles and Ruth Condomine (Joe Cella and Sarajane Alverson) at their lovely home in Kent for dinner. The evening includes quasi-occult entertainment with a seance performed by local medium Madame Arcati (Kathy Rush).
Attended to by Edith, their high-strung maid (Amanda Brasher), the couples engage in witty highbrow banter until they manage to conjure the ghost of Charles Condomine’s late wife, Elvira (Annalise Webb).
Cella, Alverson, Naegelin and Mischel beautifully delivered the dialogue with reasonably well-maintained aristocratic English accents. Rush employed a more common English accent while stopping well short of cockney. Brasher’s speaking lines were clipped “Yes, mum!” declarations, but she excelled at physical comedy.
The dialogue was dense, the well-to-do showing off their vocabulary with lots of $10 words (or 7.57 pounds sterling). There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it does make for some laborious listening over the length of the play.
The production, staged in the lovely and surprisingly roomy Emerson Black Box Theatre in the J. Schneidegger Center, delighted with its technical expertise.
When the Bradmans arrive at the Condomine house, diffused headlights can be seen pulling up through curtained windows. That really added to the sense of realism, which in turn magnified the surrealism of the ghost story.
Later in the production, the haunted house showed its displeasure with its residents as pictures dropped off the walls, doors slammed, objects flipped from tables and the mantelpiece seemingly by themselves. Spooky!
The first act didn’t break for intermission until nearly 90 minutes and the second act wasn’t much shorter. The ghost story was fairly predictable, even if you haven’t seen the play or the 1945 film version.
For the most part the dialogue and setting still hold up, but there appeared to be no real urge to return to the seats as intermission ended.
Coward’s script seemed to contradict itself as Charles seemed to earnestly love his late wife. Why then should her spirit be so tempestuous towards his current wife? Elvira died of cancer, according to the dialogue, so there was no malice on Ruth’s part towards Elvira.
Madame Arcati, whose actual affinity for communing with the spirits is a surprise even to herself, would make a better target for Elvira’s wrath, if only for rousing her from eternal slumber.
It was the long build-up to a shallow payoff that made this play something less than blithe. Jane Sullivan’s direction of this excellent cast couldn’t overcome the plodding excess of the source material.
The production team, especially stage manager Sarah Hovegna, scenic designer Tim Poertner and lighting designer Michael Sullivan was top-notch, too.
“Blithe Spirit” overstayed its welcome at a time where comedic relief from the stresses of 21st century living is increasingly in demand. Perhaps a few clever turns of phrase and flowery, prosaic dialogue doesn’t go as far as it once did. This Coward classic can’t break through the modern melancholy to tickle today’s funny bone. Maybe it’s time to let this old ghost story rest in peace.
Act Inc. presented “Blithe Spirit” weekends June 8-24 at the Emerson Black Box at the Schadeigger Center for the Arts at Lindenwood University in St. Charles. For more information, visit www.actincstl.com