Blithe Spirit” is a classic comic confection

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"Blithe Spirit" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia
Blithe Spirit at The Shakespeare Theatre

Prolific playwright Noël Coward (1899-1973) is best noted for three classic comedies: Hay Fever (1925); Private Lives (1930); and Blithe Spirit (1941). The latter, written in six days during the height of the London Blitz, has been revived by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. It is a fine display of Coward’s sophisticated writing and acidic view of social conventions and conventional morality.

"Blithe Spirit" at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia
“Blithe Spirit” at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia

Novelist Charles Condomine (Brent Harris), doing research on his next book, invites Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford), a psychic and medium, to dinner at the home he shares with his second wife Ruth (Kate MacCluggage). With the help of dinner guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Ames Adamson and Monette Magrath), Madame Arcati conducts a séance which inadvertently brings back the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira (Susan Maris). Since only Charles can see or hear the mischievous, willful Elvira, everyone save Madame Arcati believes he’s suffering from hallucinations. While Charles slowly starts enjoying the idea of having two wives about the house, Elvira hatches a plan to have him to herself for all eternity. Eventually Charles calls back Madame Arcati in an attempt to return his life to normal.

The comic gem of this production is Tina Stafford’s Madame Arcati
"Blithe Spirit at STNJ with Brent Harris as Charles, Kate MacCluggage as Ruth, and Tina Stafford as Madame Arcati. Photo by Jerry Dalia
“Blithe Spirit at STNJ with Brent Harris as Charles, Kate MacCluggage as Ruth, and Tina Stafford as Madame Arcati. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

Director Victoria Mack, a ten-year acting veteran of the Shakespeare Theatre here making her directorial debut with the company, shows a deft hand with Coward’s characters and dialogue and his increasingly farcical situations, although the pacing seems to get a bit too fast heading into the play’s climax. The comic gem of this production is Tina Stafford’s Madame Arcati. Arcati is generous, wise, and completely uninhibited in her thoughts and actions. She has learned to be true to her inner self and her gifts, not needing to pay attention to the opinion of others. Stafford is matched in physical lunacy by Bethany Kay in the role of Edith, the Condomines’ maid. Whether racing through the house at breakneck speed or inching along with excruciating slowness, she evokes hilarity every time she appears.

"Blithe Spirit" at STNJ with Tina Stafford as Madame Arcati. Photo by Jerry Dalia.
“Blithe Spirit” at STNJ with Tina Stafford as Madame Arcati. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

At first glance, the roles of Ruth and Elvira seem to be stereotypes of two kinds of woman, one strait-laced and conventional, the other flighty and unfettered by convention. Yet as played by Kate MacCluggage and Susan Maris, you can see Coward’s wit with a slight tinge of pathos as they battle to lay claim to Charles’ undivided attention. As for Charles, Brent Harris portrays him as a seeming sophisticate at the start, but reveals him as somewhat dim and obtuse once the supernatural strips away his veneer of normality.

Charlie Calvert creates the spacious living room of the Condomines, coming alive with ghostly special effects. In this he is aided by the lighting and sound designs of Michael Giannitti and Käri Berntson. Hugh Hanson’s costumes evoke upper-class chic for the Condomines and the Bradmans, otherworldly glamour for Elvira, and for Madame Arcati both flowing evening wear and practical traveling gear.

Blithe Spirit is a fine summer’s entertainment
"Blithe Spirit" at STNJ with Kate MacCluggage as Ruth, Ames Adamson as Mr. Bradman and Monette Magrath as Mrs. Bradman. Photo by Jerry Dalia.
“Blithe Spirit” at STNJ with Kate MacCluggage as Ruth, Ames Adamson as Mr. Bradman and Monette Magrath as Mrs. Bradman. Photo by
Jerry Dalia.

Noël Coward’s vaunted skill as a playwright made Blithe Spirit one of the longest-running plays on the British stage in its initial production. That same skill turns a play written as a respite from the daily horrors of the Blitz into a comedy that delights anew whenever it is mounted. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has come up with a fine summer’s entertainment. Make it a point to see it before it comes to a close.

Blithe Spirit is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through September 2, 2018. For tickets and information, visit shakespearenj.org.