On a chilly evening in mid-December, my friend Kate and I went to see Artists Repertory Theatre’s (ART) production of the comedy Blithe Spirit in downtown Portland. I was unfamiliar with the play and chose to not do any research into its content or subject matter in advance. In Kate’s case, she had seen the Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit once as a child with her parents, and only remembered enjoying it. Attending this performance as an adult would be a nostalgic experience for her and a new one for me.
Walking into the Morrison Stage that night I felt an immediate sense of having stepped back in time. Blithe Spirit was first produced in 1941 in London, and ART’s Director Christopher Liam Moore had chosen to retain the original feel of that era in this production’s set, costuming, and staging. The first word that came to mind upon looking at the stage was “sumptuous.” The eye-catching details, such as marbled flooring, a mahogany-hued phonograph, and a sufficient amount of doilies, intermingled to create the interior of an upper-class English manor, situated during the onset of the second World War.
Blithe Spirit begins, as many plays do, with guests arriving upon invitation. Socialite Charles Condomine and wife Ruth (played by Michael Mendelson and Jill Van Velzer) host their friends, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Allen Nause and JoAnn Johnson) for dinner. They also invite the colorful, eccentric Madame Arcati (Vana O’Brien), a local medium. Coward’s script plays upon this trope of invitation when Madame Arcati holds a séance in the Condomines’ parlor, and calls upon otherworldly entities to join the dinner party. Thus the Condomines, who had intended to hold the séance as postprandial lark, soon discover they have consequentially materialized a phantasmal guest. And hang onto your trilbies, boys, because this particular spirit winds up being none other than Charles’s dearly-departed first wife, Elvira Condomine (played by Sara Hennessy).
With this polygam-ish conflict set, Blithe Spirit runs its madcap engine at a lively pace throughout three acts. I felt that the performance’s energy was best represented by the Condomines’ gamine housemaid, Edith (played by Val Landrum), whose propensity to careen in and out of her scenes becomes a literal running joke. The other actors, however, more than held their own: Michael Mendelson masterfully towed the line of victim and villain in his portrayal of Charles, helping fuel a love-hate relationship with his wives as well as with the audience. Jill Van Velzer’s stiffly held upper lip turned Ruth into the perfect antagonist to Sara Hennessy’s kittenish Elvira, and Vana O’Brien injected each of her scenes with music and vitality (underscored by her jinglebell-lined costume).
The props that I so admired at the beginning of the show ended up playing a role in much of the performance’s physical comedy. Pieces such as a large bay window, a drink service cart, and an oversized hunting portrait (complete with beagles) all contributed to various sight gags throughout the evening. The use of lighting to convey supernatural occurrences was utilized in a clever fashion, and there was a delightful scene wherein every furnishing the ghostly Elvira perches on emits a pinkish-purple glow.
It’s this sense of fun and frivolity that makes Blithe Spirit a family-friendly production (ART’s website recommends it for ages 8 and up). However, as I watched it I couldn’t help but feel that Coward was also hinting at something deeper through his chosen medium. Along with the other spirits in the audience, I played the role of a spectral presence observing a moment in time when people needed to feel human the most.
Jennifer Gurney lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the Delve Readers Seminars Program Manager at Literary Arts.