Issue December 7, 2005

Theater Review – Blithe Spirit

The title of the play may be “Blithe Spirit,” but the ghost that haunts an aristocratic British couple in Noel Coward’s play is anything but carefree. Actually, Elvira is not happy at all when she returns from the hereafter to retrieve her husband, much to the disapproval of Charles’ current (and living) wife, Ruth. Elvira misses her husband, is jealous that he found a new wife and concocts a plan to be with him. The catch is that to spend eternity with Charles, Elvira must kill him.

Sir Coward was a playwright, actor, composer and director, and his most popular plays from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were about wealthy, self-absorbed and superficial Britons. (Elvira died from a heart attack triggered by laughing at a musical program on BBC radio.)

“Blithe Spirit” is chock full of Coward’s signature sarcastic and biting language. The feisty play is given good treatment by Walden Theatre and the cast of high school students, who are reasonably at home with the witty and fast-paced dialogue. When Coward’s play is united with Walden’s thorough interpretation, the result is an amusing and enjoyable production.

The fun begins when Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium, summons Elvira (Margaret Streeter) during a séance in Charles and Ruth’s home. Only Charles (Ted Stevens) can hear and see the “ectoplasm manifestation” of his first wife. That only Charles communicates with Elvira creates several humorous exchanges in which Charles tells Elvira to shut up, go away, etc., yet Ruth (Madeline Miller) believes Charles is speaking to her.

After the initial shock of Elvira’s return passes, Charles is content to live with both wives. Ruth and Elvira, however, mix like oil and water. (When Ruth asks Charles why Elvira is so disagreeable, Charles huffs something like, “No reason to believe that the afterlife is any less exasperating than this one.”) Ruth orders Arcati (a wonderfully goofy Magnolia Hensley) to send Elvira back, something Arcati doesn’t know how to do.

The play takes an interesting twist when Ruth becomes the victim of Elvira’s plan to kill Charles, and Arcati, in an attempt to send Elvira back, instead conjures up Ruth. (Ruth, furious with Elvira, is not a blithe spirit either.) With no doorway to the land of the dead, the wives turn their anger on Charles.

The three principal actors — high school juniors Stevens, Streeter and Miller — work well together and offer strong individual performances. Streeter is an elegant specter, dressed in a silver gown, shawl and shoes. Thanks to the white powder in her hair, she leaves behind a puff of fine dust when she moves. Stevens is charming as the unctuous Charles, and Miller turns in a fine performance as the headstrong Ruth.

Other kudos go to director Aimee Luzier and Alec Volz for creating a deceptively large set in the small space of the Kentucky Center’s MeX Theater, and to dialect coach Wendy Radenow for instructing each actor through a passable British accent.

BY DANA NORTON
leo@leoweekly.com