Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association; Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle), and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Meadow Brook Theatre
High-Spirited High Jinks
Laughter is the best medicine, and for good reason. It helps us mere mortals cope with the unpleasant and scary things in life. Scariest of them all is the “undiscovered country” that Hamlet talks about in his famous soliloquy, the place from which no one ever returns. Or do they? From Abbott and Costello to Ghostbusters and countless others, the comedy doctors have been busy making death funny.
During especially scary times, in the summer of 1941, Sir Noel Coward’s ghostly comedy “Blithe Spirit” premiered in Manchester and London, to wild acclaim and smashing box office success. Coward served as both playwright and director. It went on to a successful run on Broadway later in 1941, just before the U.S. entered the war. Coward was, and is, one of the most influential and prolific of British talents. Playwright, author, actor, songwriter and performer, he achieved success in nearly every endeavor. “Blithe Spirit” continues to be one of the most enduring and popular plays in his repertoire.
Coward said he purposely crafted the characters in “Blithe Spirit” as unrelatable and cartoonish, all the easier for his grief-stricken and fearful wartime audiences to laugh at them and their predicaments. But there’s substance amid the ectoplasm: Disguised as light comedy, this is really a dark farce, challenging our notions about love, trust and eternity.
At Meadow Brook Theatre, under director Travis Walter’s skilled guidance, the 1940s-era characters are vividly rendered by the actors, with a warm affection and earnestness that makes this such an enjoyable comedy. Fueled by Coward’s sparkling dialogue and crisp action, the time flies.
Timothy Goodwin stars as popular writer Charles Condomine, who‘s looking for inspiration for his next book. He invites a local medium to conduct a séance in his home and ends up with more material than he ever could have imagined. Goodwin’s considerable gifts for witty dialogue and physical comedy are on display, as his glib and nonchalant character gradually descends into frenzy, then acceptance. The medium, Madame Arcati, is played by Lynnae Lehfeldt with a grim eccentricity that builds in volume over the play’s three acts.
Spoiler alert: Charles’ two wives, Ruth (Dani Cochrane) and Elvira (Leslie Ann Handelman), make excellent sparring partners, both in this world and the next. Charles’ first wife, the moody and flamboyant Elvira, has been dead for seven years. Courtesy of Madame Arcati, she appears among the living once again, but is seen and heard only by Charles. None too pleased that Charles has married again, she does her best to sabotage his happiness with Ruth. Some of the funniest moments onstage are watching Charles trying to talk with the invisible Elvira and Ruth thinking her poor husband has gone bonkers. Cochrane has arguably the more difficult role as Ruth, deftly transitioning from loving wife to skeptic to firm believer with great panache. The showstopper, however, has to be Handelman as Elvira. In her gray makeup and filmy gray gown, she swoops across the stage, terrorizing and teasing one and all. Her performance is a little more one-dimensional (pun intended), but she’s great fun to watch.
Rounding out the excellent cast is Katie Akers as the Condomine’s goofy housekeeper Edith, and Phil Powers and Stephanie Nichols as their friends the Bradmans. Almost like another character, the sweet old Irving Berlin ballad “Always” drifts in and out of the story as a reminder of what was, and what may be.
Lighting by Phillip Hall and costumes by Corey Collins help create a semi-supernatural mood. The simple but lovely set by Kristen Gribbin represents the kind of house you’d feel at home in, even if you’re a ghost. The little blast of music and dancing at the end makes a fun and surprising finish for this very entertaining show.
When: Now through February 2, 2020
Tickets $36 to $46
Where: Meadow Brook Theatre at Wilson Hall
378 Meadow Brook Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48309
Meadow Brook Theatre is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, the Fred and Barbara Erb Family Foundation, the Shubert Foundation and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.