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BLITHE SPIRIT….Noel Coward at his delightful best

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle)

Nöel Coward is noted as being one of the most creative dramatists, writers, composers, lyricist, painters and wit of the Western World.  In fact, through his creations he is noted for virtually inventing the concept of “Englishness.” It has been noted that, “he was defined by his Englishness as much as he defined it.”

From the early to mid-twentieth century, on both sides of the “pond,” Coward was so much a high level creator of wit and humor that he was dubbed “The Master.”

Everything about Coward was classy.  Interestingly, he was not born into the upper class, but, even though the early 1900s in England was a very class-conscious society, through determination and charm, Coward earned entry into the choicest of circles.

He once said, “I am determined to travel through life first class.”  To enhance this image, he often wore lavish dressing gowns, a costume necessity for his play’s leading men.

He spoke with a distinctive clipped diction and staccato type of speech because his mother was deaf and this helped her to hear him better.  That sound is woven into many of the leading male roles in his plays, roles he often played on stage.

BLITHE SPIRIT, a 1941 escapist comedy, is one of Coward’s most popular plays.  It centers on Charles Condomine, a socialite and novelist.  Condomine is married to Ruth, his second wife.  As the basis for a new book he is writing on clairvoyance, he invites Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium, to conduct a séance.   Chaos breaks loose when Charles’ dead wife, Elvira, is summoned.  She arrives, causes mayhem, and refuses to leave.  Hysteria and plot twists and turns, as only Coward can conceive them, become the rule of the day.

Coward, the consummate wordsmith, creates instances that are pure delight.  His plays need little in the way of directorial invention.  The words and the situations develop into humor and move the story right along.

Great Lakes Theater’s BLITHE SPIRIT is quite humorous.  Unfortunately, due to a casting glitch and some slow pacing, it is not as riotous as it could be.

Director Charles Fee, the local king of farce, adds his own twists by adding some funny shticks such as exaggerating the line descriptions for the actions of Edith, the hyperactive maid, but also playing other scenes for guffaws, rather than allowing Coward’s ironic humor to emerge.

The lead women in the cast are strong.  Maggie Kettering is properly uptight as second wife Ruth.  The beautiful Shanara Gabrielle is right on target as the dead, young, and modern first wife, Elvira.

Lauri Birmingham totally understands how to create Coward.  She plays Madam Arcati straight, allowing the master’s lines to incite the humor.  The only thing that distracts are some dancing around stage movements, which were added for farcical delight.

Jodi Dominick is hysterical as Edith.  Even in places where farce replaces comedy, she is  capable of being laughed with, not at.

Aled Davies and Molly McGinnis are character right as Dr. Bradman and Mrs. Bradman, house guests for the séance.

Eric Damon Smith mugs, sneers, and bares his teeth as Charles, thus nearly destroying the character written by Coward.   The overacting detracts, rather than enhances.

Russell Metheny’s  elegant set design, Kim Drumm Sorenson’s costumes and Rick Martin’s lighting all work well.

As with plays of its era, BLITHE SPIRIT is 3-acts.  With two intermissions it runs around 2 and one-half hours.

Capsule judgement: Nöel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT is one of those magical epics that delights audiences.  Great Lakes Theater is blessed with some excellent female leads who help make the show a smile fest, though it should have been the laugh fest created by the master.