When Noël Coward’s ghostly comedy “Blithe Spirit” first premiered in London’s West End in 1941 during the dark days of the Blitz, some wondered whether a farce featuring loved ones back from the dead would play well with war-weary audiences dealing with death on a daily basis.
They needn’t have worried.
Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” went on to break West End records before moving to the Broadway stage and the silver screen in a 1945 film version starring Rex Harrison. And the Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s new production does Coward’s comedy justice, striking a deft balance between humorous hijinks and shrewd social commentary on the complexities of modern marriage.
The play begins as a seemingly straightforward British drawing room comedy, as novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, await the arrival of dinner guests, one of whom – the flamboyant psychic medium Madame Arcati – Charles hopes to mine for material for his next novel. The guests good-naturedly take part in a séance and have a jolly time humoring the medium – that is, until Charles discovers that the melodramatic mystic has somehow managed to summon the spirit of his late first wife, Elvira.
From there, Coward exploits all the comedic possibilities of Charles’ predicament. As the only person who can see and hear Elvira at first, the suave and sophisticated Charles swiftly begins to unravel, becoming ever more frantic in his attempts to keep straitlaced Ruth from both learning about Elvira’s presence and questioning his sanity. Eventually, Madame Arcati is summoned to send Elvira back where she came from – with about as much success and finesse as her previous séance.
It would be easy to dismiss “Blithe Spirit” as nothing more than a light theatrical confection were it not for the clever way Coward uses the play’s supernatural love triangle to explore marriage and the human condition. And the Alhambra’s cast is more than equal to the task: As Charles, David Arrow is adept at conveying the confusion of a man torn between love for his current, more mature wife and lingering feelings for the irrepressible, coquettish Elvira. He is ably assisted in that effort by Laura Hodos as Ruth – the duo’s timing is excellent and at times their marital sparring seems eerily authentic – and Jessica Booth, whose mischievous Elvira relishes the chance to throw a mystical monkey wrench into her husband’s new marriage.
As Charles engages in heart to heart chats with first one spouse and then the other, it’s fascinating to see how one man could have enjoyed happy marriages with such utterly different women. It’s also easy to understand why Charles hesitates to banish the charming and devilish Elvira from his steady yet all-too-sedate union with Ruth.
Patti Eyler and Drew Taylor strike the right note as the happily married country neighbors, the Bradmans, while the play’s comic relief is entrusted to Lisa Valdini as the exuberant Madame Arcati and Lexi Langs as the high-strung parlor maid, Edith.
Together, the Alhambra cast succeeds in keeping the audience’s spirits high for one of Coward’s most enjoyable theatrical romps.
“Blithe Spirit” runs through June 5 at the Alhambra Theatre & Dining in Jacksonville.