The title says it all:
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of the Noël Coward classic of couples behaving comedically, through Aug. 7, has the proper balance between the “blithe” (look it up: ”showing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper”) and the “spirit” (a double-entendre here; again, you could look it up: “the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul” and “those qualities regarded as forming the definitive or typical elements in the character of a person”).
In the charming production, PSF “Blithe Spirit” director Anne Lewis elegantly balances the very attributes of the brilliant title inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem (”To A Skylark”) in the actors (has there ever been assembled a more perfect ensemble at PSF?), in the exquisitely-detailed set (baby grand, fireplace, mantle, mirror, columns, bookshelf, drapes, lamps, sumptuous sofa and chairs) by Set Designer David P. Gordon, in the mood swings by Lighting Designer Thom Weaver, in the cracking good effects (and Irving Berlin’s lovely “Aways” theme song) by Sound Designer Kristian Derek Ball and a bevy of costumes for the women (gorgeous and elegant and so many of them) and the men (such tailored sophistication) by Costume Designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane.
Talk about “ecto-plasmic manifestation.” One has to think twice as one sits in the Main Stage Theatre of Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University, Center Valley, that one is not, in fact, in a Broadway theater. PSF’s “Blithe Spirit” is that good. Broadway is manifest at the Pa. Shakespeare Fest.
Lewis mines the mnemonic devices at the core of Coward’s brilliant comedy, given its first staging in 1941 in London’s West End and New York City’s Broadway, with its sure-fire, direct plot that is simplicity personified in its complexity. Lewis carefully stages this impeccable production with lovely attention to letting the actors go word-to-word (with some references in the script to the words of Shakespeare) and the lovely felicity of language and keen observation that is Coward: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
Yes, the play’s the thing, and it clearly is in this laugh-out-loud comedy. However, superlatives are not enough to describe this terrific cast in the July 24 performance seen for this review. Most amazingly, the actors are in repertory with Shakespeare’s “The Taming of The Shrew,” through Aug. 7 at PSF.
Pivotal is Ian Merrill Peakes as British novelist Charles Condomine. Peakes bustles with nervous energy, internal consternation and the supercilious capacity of the overly self-assured. This is a masterful performance by Peakes.
Karen Peakes as Charles’ wife Ruth, brings a fluttery preoccupation and the dislocation of the dispossessed, obsessed as she is with her husband’s sepulchral unfaithfulness. She’s a delight.
Linda Thorson as Madame Arcati, the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-beyond sooth-sayer, sails through the scenes with a steely countenance that crushes all in her path who deign to doubt.
Ally Borgstrom as Edith, the maid, careening from room to room as if her head is set like a ship’s main sail billowed forward by an oceanic wind, provides hilarious comic relief.
Owen Peakes does the voice of Daphne.
Carl N. Wallnau as Dr. Bradman, friend and physician to the Condomine family, brings a flustered startlingness that is wonderful to behold. Joyce Cohen, as his wife, Mrs. Bradman, provides a bemused and confused counterpoint to the madcap carrying-on.
Eleanor Handley as Elvira, Charles’ first wife, channels (as befits a dear-departed) the sass of Jean Harlow in her tart-tongued delivery and the slinky substance of Marlene Dietrich in her swanning across the stage like a sylph. She slinks. She leans back. She lounges. She prances. She dances. Blonde-topped and red-lipped, hands firmly on hips, she gives a drop-dead stare in a gray gown. No one has a ghost of a chance in her presence.
“Blithe Spirit” was first presented during a war-torn England and later the same year in a United States that would be Pearl-Harbored into World War II a month later. In times like those, and times like these, laughing in the face of adversity is not only inspirational but called for.
This is a midsummer night’s ghost story. Get in the spirit of “Blithe Spirit.” If there’s one play to see in the 2016 summer theater season, this is it.