Chet Greason, Gazette Staff
Blithe Spirit, currently playing at the Avon Theatre, is a rather ho-hum production. It boasts definite high points, equally definite low points, and a lot of largely forgettable details that round out a production that will have you changing the subject during post-play discussions.
Noel Coward’s play, written and first performed during the Blitz in England during WWII, concerns an upper-class couple, the Condomines, who invite a local medium over to hold a seance. Things get wacky, or as wacky as a stodgy English upper-class setting will allow, when Mr. Condomine’s dead first wife is summoned and refuses to leave.
A definite high point would be the set. Designed by Simon Higlett, the Condomine’s sitting area is posh, sprawling, and undeniably gorgeous.
Another high point would be Seana McKenna in the juicy role of fruity medium Madame Arcati. McKenna sinks her teeth into the thoroughly silly character, appearing to have a great deal of physical fun with it.
The play’s program is correct: The best bits in Blithe Spirit are the arguments, with venomous volleys hurled between Ben Carlson’s Colin Firth-like Charles Condomine, the ghostly Elvira (Michelle Giroux), and living wife Sara Topham, which brings us to our first low point.
I thoroughly enjoy Topham’s performances. She is an extremely talented comedic actress with an expressive face and eyes that speak volumes ... but that voice!
Were it a character trait confined to the shrill and uptight Ruth of Blithe Spirit, it might be forgivable. However, Topham’s tenuous timbre is an issue that has plagued many of her other performances, most notably her Juliet in this year’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s hoped she can learn to tone it down a few notches, lest she become the Jar Jar Binks of the Festival company.
Also problematic is the misogyny of the play. It is as much a treatise in support of hen-pecked husbands as it is a critique of marriage in general. But Charles is not exactly blameless; in fact, he is as equally imperfect as his wives. And yet, by the show’s end, you can’t help but feel for the women. The story’s “vindication” of Charles seeming somewhat perplexing given his actions.
Lastly, Blithe Spirit was recently produced in 2011 by the amateur Community Players in nearby St. Marys. It is interesting to compare the two productions' closer, which features a great deal of destruction caused by invisible hands.
In both Stratford and St. Marys, pictures fly off walls, vases shatter, books are flung, and support beams come crashing down. However, only in the Stratford production were ropes and wires visible and poking rods left carelessly unhidden.
Is it a testament to the stage crew in tiny St. Marys? Or mere proof positive that Stratford’s production of Blithe Spirit was very much an afterthought production given little priority?
Like I said, ho-hum. And for a show that centres around the intoxicating subject of inevitable death and what comes after, that’s saying something.