When Noël Coward thought to write a play about ghosts, he searched for a title and found one in Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poem “Ode to a Skylark,” which begins “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit/ Bird thou never wert.” Once the title came, the play rolled off the artist’s pen with vigor and wit.
Coward was a theatre genius; a brilliant composer, director, actor and singer – but first and foremost, a playwright, who was the quintessential master of British drawing-room comedy. Coward’s works filled the stages on both sides of The Pond from the first decade of the 20th Century until his death in 1973; they remain a mainstay for any theatre looking for a bright and witty, audience-grabbing piece which promises to be a success.
So be it with “Blithe Spirit” when Tacoma Little Theatre decided to make this enduring unique situation comedy its 2017-18 season opener. The play premiered in 1941 and set a London’s West End record of almost 2,000 performances before the final curtain.
“Blithe Spirit” is a down-to-earth story of a society-class English couple living in a typical British country home who encounters a slight ex-marital problem.
Deciding how to entertain their dinner guests, Ruth and Charles Condomine invite the eccentric Madame Arcati, a local occultist who specializes in séances where she attempts to reunite her clients with those who have passed-over. This gives Charles an opportunity to get some color for a book the novelist plans to write about the clairvoyant’s profession.
Dr. George and Mrs. Violet Bradman are delighted at the prospects of an enchanting dinner’s diversion.
The evening progresses successfully when Madam Arcati falls into a trance and, unbeknownst to her or any others except Charles, materialized his first wife, Elvira.
The next day, Charles convinces Ruth of the truth. The second wife refuses to remain second and threatens to leave her husband if he doesn’t send Elvira back from whence she came; she seeks Madame Arcati’s help to no avail.
Elvira is determined to remain with Charles, whom she still loves, and decides the only way she can do this is to cause his demise by cutting the brake line of his car. Too late, Elvira finds that Ruth is driving the car when it crashed into a tree and the two wives meet face to face for the first time. The upshot is a tormented Charles trying to divest himself of two insanely jealous wives going to the medium for help which she is unable to give. However, she does suggest to Charles that ghosts can’t travel over water and suggests that Charles goes on a long – very long ocean voyage.
Chris Serface is an excellent director who deftly understands the subtleties of British humor to bring out the best of the improbable situations and has imbrued it well within his very able cast – all to the delight of the audience.
Serface is masterfully aided by his technical crew, which gives the actors all the nuances of the production to help them convey the feel of the play to the willing audience.
Judy Cullen’s set design exemplifies the epitome of the typical English country home of the era; it rings with casual elegance in the columned high living room walls with mantled fireplace stage left, juxtaposed by French doors leading to the garden across the stage; upstage center, it’s two steps up to the foyer with the unseen front door stage right. A few pictures are artfully placed on the walls and the bookcases are filled with various books and memorabilia, giving the room a livable, relaxed formal setting.
Jeffery Weaver dresses the stage fittingly as he dresses his actor’s hair. Technical Director Blake R. York adds a few surprises to the set, which are seen prior to the final curtain.
Michele Graves dresses the actors perfectly in keeping with the time-frame. Graves excels when dressing Arcati in somewhat exocentric outfits.
Niclas Olson does the lighting design with sometimes eerie special effects; ditto to Dylan Twiner’s sound design. Nena Curley is Stage Manager.
Serface chooses his tight cast of seven from the abundant talent of the Puget Sound area. There are some newcomers but most are well-known, tried and true actors. All fit the roles ably with aplomb and understanding.
SarahLynn Mangan plays Edith, the Condomine’s maid. Mangan attacks her role of the over-eager serving girl who must be reminded to “walk, don’t run” each time she appears on stage. Mangan plays her role with exuberance and a modicum of restraint to make the character as the playwright wrote her.
John Sanders is Dr. George Bradman. Sanders has a good time with the role of the medical man trying to understand the venture into the occult. He is staid and true with a bit of eagerness to find something real about it all.
Darla Smedley is his wife, Mrs. Violet Bradman. Smedley has given the audience a wonderful character who is so very “hail fellow, well met” she’s almost obnoxious – in a friendly sort of way. The causal friend greets her hostess with unwanted hugs and kisses making the audience understand that she is the best friend of the world; really nice character choice.
Brittany Henderson is the ghost of wife number one, Elvira Condomine and Henderson plays her with a vengeance. The spirited spirit wreaks havoc on the poor widower and his new wife and the actress relishes the role with gusto. Henderson has made her character so proud of herself, she can’t help get exude laughter form the audience.
Jed Slaughter brings Charles Condomine to life with the typical under-played British comedic realization that his dead wife is visiting and no one believes him. Slaughter acts more perturbed rather than angry with the situation. He gives Charles an end game goal of just forgetting about the whole thing and getting on with his life.
Deya Ozburn is wife two — Ruth Condomine. Ozburn is a consummate actor who gives each character she portrays a unique persona; the actor is chameleon-like in her characterizations. Ruth is loving, laughing, incredulous, angry and finally resigned. Ozburn shows every facet of her character wonderfully well.
Dana Galagan is the flamboyant medium Madame Arcati. Galagan has learned that when an actor takes on the role of an over-the top comical person, the only way to make her truly funny is to play her completely straight and make the audience understand the character actually believes everything she says and does. This is where the wit of the lines and humor of the actions meld to make the perfect characterization. In a word, Galagan nailed it! This is a monumental achievement for the actor and the director and perhaps the best thing Galagan has done.
“Blithe Spirit” continues at Tacoma Little Theatre at 210 North I Street through November 5 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with 2 p.m. matinees Sundays; there is a special Pay-What-You-Can performance scheduled Thursday, November 2.