Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2009
In April of 1921 popular author Elizabeth von Arnim*, then 55, widowed from her first marriage, divorced from her second, and being wooed by a handsome young man 30 years her junior, rented a medieval castello at Portofino, Italy with two other women. There she began writing The Enchanted April which appeared in bookstores in October of the following year. An instant success, the story has been filmed three times (a silent version in 1925 and two “talkies” in 1935 and 1992) and adapted for the stage twice, in 1925 by Kane Campbell, and in 2002 by Matthew Barber.
It is this latest stage adaptation, directed by Tom Detwiler, being presented at the Ghent Playhouse through May 31, and while it pales in comparison to von Arnim’s original, charming novel, it retains the appeal that any story of a successful escape from the mundane, however brief, inevitably holds.
Enchanted April begins on a dreary rainy day in London when Charlotte “Lotty” Wilton (Mary Ellen Nelligar), an overworked and under-appreciated British housewife, sees a newspaper ad for an Italian castle to rent for the month of April. An implusive soul, Lotty immediately convinces an acquaintance, Rose Arnott (Kathy Wohfeld), to pool their resources and rent the castle together from the handsome young (and single) Antony Wilding (Jonathan Slocum). The castle comes complete with a fiesty Italian cook named Costanza (Wendy Power Spielmann). When their resources fall short of what is necessary, they advertise for two other female companions, and Lady Caroline Bramble (Stephanie Tanaka) and Mrs. Graves (Joan Coombs) join the party. Both Lotty and Rose have marriages troubled by the kind of ordinary tragedies that mar many such arrangements. Lotty’s husband Mellersh (Ted Phelps) is a stuffy old lawyer, and Rose’s husband Frederick (Tracy Trimm) writes biographies of racy women under the pseudonym Florian Ayres, a practice of which, although lucrative, Rose does not approve. His success as an author has given Frederick a life outside of their marriage at the very time when that relationship is under tremendous strain.
As we get to know them it becomes clear that Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves, both widows, are still struggling with the ghosts of their past relationships. But Lotty remains convinced that the castle, San Salvatore, will work its enchantment on all of them to restore them and their relationships to fullness and joy.
The play does have a happy ending, but because of a variety of performance problems the only couple you really feel invested in are the Wiltons. Nelligar centers the whole production with a lovably loopy performance, and Phelps matches her with an equally three-dimensional and quirky Mellersh (Mellersh Wilton – I just love that name – its sort of limp, squishy, and nebulous all at the same time). When they rekindle the fire in their marriage, you are really happy for them.
Wohfeld doesn’t manage to pull off Rose’s transition from despair to hope. She is not aided by Barber’s script, which strips away much of von Arnim’s story for Rose, but really all Wohfeld needs to do is smile more once the action moves to Italy. A little added make-up between pivotal scenes, to soften and brighten her face, would help as well.
Coombs is delightful as Mrs. Graves. She completely understands her character and gives her a graceful and charming metamorphosis. Companionship allows Mrs. Graves to literally shed her shell, just like those nuts she loves so much, and in the process becomes younger, happier, and more beautiful by the minute.
Detwiler and Tanaka have completely misunderstood Lady Caroline. She is not a 1920’s version of Paris Hilton, she is a young widow prevented by her physical beauty and public notoriety from being able to grieve. She desperately needs to get away from the world to find herself and to heal. Tanaka has Caroline instantly flirting with Wilding and seemingly thrilled at being pursued by Frederick/Florian, which is completely out of character.
Slocum is young and handsome, but he is nervous and fidgety on stage and therefore unable to give Antony Wilding the grace and ease of a well-bred young bachelor. Unfortuneately, Barber has also stripped much of this character’s back story from the script.
Trimm looks like he’s having a touch too much fun playing Frederick/Florian as the aging roué without showing the sorrow and desperation that has driven him to it.
But no one is having, or dispensing, more fun on stage than Spielmann. Speaking nothing but Italian, she makes herself clearly understood. Maybe the Italians developed all those characteristic arm and hand gestures over millennia of trying to communicate with thick-headed tourists?
I have to say I was disappointed in the feeble stage kissing the middle-aged couples displayed. I know the reality is awkward, but when you are playing long-married couples there needs to be a sense of ease and of passion to physical encounters. You need to show the audience that there is a reason these two people came together, and stayed together during difficult times, and also the joy they feel in rediscovering those emotions. And middle-aged married folks are so seldom represented as people who still feel passion, that I was ashamed of my contemporaries for kissing like a bunch of middle-schoolers playing Spin-the-Bottle when they should have been demonstrating what a little age and experience will do for you.
I was also disappointed that Detwiler and Phelps didn’t go for at least the illusion of The Full Monty in the scene where, having been untimely dislodged from the bathtub after the hot water heater explodes, Mellersh finds himself being introduced to Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves with nothing but a hastily grabbed towel to conceal his nakedness. I am not expressing a prurient desire to oogle unclad actors – Lord knows I am subjected to enough unwanted and unwarranted stage nudity, flashing, and mooning as it is – I just think a discretely exposed thigh or buttock is funnier than a pair of boxer shorts.
Bill Camp has designed an effective and simple set which morphs beautifully from dreary London to glorious Italy. Alas, there is little in Joanne Mauer’s costumes to suggest that it really is 1922. The 1920’s were a distinctive and stylish era for women’s clothing which means audience expectations are high and hard to meet on a limited, community theatre budget. Because Maurer’s costumes look considerably more modern than intended, I spent some early moments of the play convinced that the World War the women were referring to was the Second, not the First.
I highly recommend that you read the novel, which is available for free online at Project Gutenberg and other sites, as well as being readily available in paperback and at local libraries. It is a perfect summer read, and you will understand so much more about the women, especially the characters of Rose and Caroline, than you will from the play. But I do warn you that Barber has seen fit to change almost all of the characters’ last names (why??) You’ll soon adjust.
While this is not a perfect production, it is a satisfying one. Because who doesn’t long to escape to somewhere beautiful and have that experience reawaken your sense of the endless possibilities of life – your life. Even though I am currently enjoying the profusion of lilacs as both the theatre and tag-sale seasons begin, I’d trade it in for a few weeks of wisteria and sunshine. Wouldn’t you?
The Ghent Playhouse production of Enchanted April opens on Friday, May 15 and runs through Sunday, May 31. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. All seats are reserved, and prices are $12.00 for members and $15.00 for non-members. For more information and/or reservations call the box office at (518) 392-6264. The Ghent Playhouse is located just off Route 66 in Ghent, across from the Fire Station.
* The author often referred to as Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary Annette Beauchamp and called May. Her first novel, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, was published anonymously in 1898. Twenty-one books followed and were signed "By the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden" and later simply "By Elizabeth". The surname "von Arnim" often associated with her comes from that of her first husband Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin. She is also known as Lady Russell. Count von Arnim died in 1910, and in 1914 she fell in love with John Francis Stanley Russell, second Earl Russell, (1865–1931) Bertrand Russell's older brother. They were married from 1916-1919. copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009