MAGNA — There are a few plays that are must-sees in my book. Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit ranks fairly high in this list. It is one of his wittiest farces and has been a favorite of mine for years. The Empress Theatre’s current production does justice to this comedic masterpiece.
Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941 during the height of World War II and was briefly criticized at the time for the subject matter of contacting those who had passed on. The play concerns socialite and novelist Charles Condomine, who invites the eccentric medium and clairvoyant, Madame Arcati, to his house to conduct a séance, hoping to gather material for his next book. The scheme backfires when he is haunted by the ghost of his annoying and temperamental first wife, Elvira. Elvira makes continual attempts to disrupt Charles’s marriage to his second wife, Ruth, who cannot see or hear the ghost. The play was a huge success in London and with almost 2,000 consecutive performances, held the record for the longest run of a play until The Mousetrap surpassed it in 1957.
Set design by Michelle Brown, Jake Anderson, Amy Burton and Butch Young set the mood for this British farce. The small stage at the Empress was well decorated as the drawing room of the Condomines. Director Jorden Cammack led her cast well in both accents and diction and did well at creating the relationships between the actors. However, there were some odd pronunciations that didn’t fit with the British setting and did seem to jar me out of the illusion.
The actors all did well with their individual characters. In every play of this type there are characters that have to play the “straight man” to the main character’s comedy. Bryan McNabb and Kimberly Wicker as Dr. George and Violet Bradman did very well in that. They had a very easy-going relationship and meshed well with the farce on stage. Heather Middleton as the maid Edith was fun to watch and got several laughs through the night with her “servant in a rush”. Michaella Greeff as the deceased wife Elvira did well in her role, but could have made a bit more of the part. Her character is described by the other characters as fascinating, maddening, cheerful and acidic, but when she shows up, she was pleasant. I found it odd that Elvira wasn’t much like the way she had been described before the audience met her.
Kristen Fox as Ruth Condomine and Stephen Bradford as Charles Condomine were very engaging in their portrayals. Fox had the somewhat difficult job of having an actor on stage and pretending not to see them. Bradford was very convincing as the cynical writer who is suddenly confronted with a very odd situation. But the real standout among the cast members was Nancy Jensen as Madame Arcati. Her mannerisms and quirks were very enjoyable to watch and added greatly to the overall fun of the show. My one slight complaint about her performance was that Jensen had no single discernible accent and the constantly shifting accents did make some of her lines a little harder to understand. But she was still great fun to watch.
The Empress seemed to suffer on this night from a trend that effects many theaters when doing a non-musical comedy: a small audience. I’m not quite sure what causes it, but plays seem to be a harder sell in legitimate theater in Utah. I know form anecdotal evidence that at least one theater has all but sworn them off because they are so much harder to get audiences for. Personally, I’m not sure why this is, and for such a show as this one, with a good cast and a very enjoyable plot, you would think they would be packing them in. Hopefully, word will spread and this play will get the audiences it deserves. Blithe Spirit is suitable for all ages and is a very witty comical farce.