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In the Spirit

The Vagabonds Ably Conjure Up Noel Coward

Medium Medium: Mary Bova (left) and Carol Mason in the Vagabonds' Blithe Spirit

By Jack Purdy | Posted 4/18/2001

Blithe Spirit

Noel Coward

Nineteen forty-one was a serious year for Britain. But that didn't keep Noel Coward from turning out his frothiest play, Blithe Spirit, a comedic tale about a novelist who suddenly has two wives in his house--one of whom is dead.

With its scenes of séances, table rappings, and assorted spiritualist mumbo jumbo, the oft-revived ghost story can seem quaint to 21st-century eyes. But it's full of Coward's patented brittle wit, which is blithely illuminated by the Vagabond Players in their current production. And, in truth, Blithe Spirit was rather topical when written. The vogue for spiritualism and mediums began in Britain just after World War I, as desolate families sought solace in the wake of so much death. Coward lived through that period, so it was naturally on his mind as the carnage was renewed.

But Dunkirk and all that are far from the drawing room of the home in idyllic Kent that is the play's setting. Novelist Charles Condomine (Dave Gamble), searching for material for his next book, invites the reputed medium Madame Arcati (Carol Mason) to demonstrate her powers. Joining in the séance are Charles' wife Ruth (Katherine Lyons) and neighbors Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Bruce Godfrey and Gloria Henderson). What is meant to be a lighthearted evening for skeptics takes a turn when Madame Arcati calls up the spirit of Charles' first wife Elvira Condomine (Melissa Leigh Douglass). And, as the spirit world plays by its own rules, Elvira is visible and audible only to Charles, so he must be insane, no?

Director Steve Goldklang wisely cast his play for types and worried about the whole question of accents later. Gamble, tall with slicked-back hair, is physically perfect for Charles, but plays the Englishman with a sort of generic upper-class accent that's all crisp diction. As the doctor, Godfrey speaks in plain Midwestern American, while Henderson, as his wife, does an excellent plummy Brit. It should all be off-putting, but because the actors are so much in the spirit of the thing, the discordant dialects are easy to forgive.

Especially in the spirit is Mason as Madame Arcati. Coward's medium is one of the great light-comic creations of the past century--a sincere if dithery woman who is genuinely astounded when she brings forth a real ghost. Mason plays her as a sort of aging schoolgirl, filled with joy at life's possibilities.

Mary Bova (who also plays the Condomines' maid, the enthusiastic Edith) designed delightfully silvery costumes for the deceased Elvira, matched by Jennifer Brown's equally silvery makeup. And the set and special effects, by Tony Colavito, Jay DeMarco, and Ferd Mainolfi, are both evocative and effective. Some-where on the other side, where the martinis are dry and the humor drier, Sir Noel may well be looking down on the Vagabonds and saying, without a trace of irony, "Good show."

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