“Enchanted April” displays gentle, life-affirming power

A scene from Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's
A scene from Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's "Enchanted April."

A sublime, gently comic play by Matthew Barber, based on the novel

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 60th Anniversary Season with Enchanted April, a sublime, gently comic play by Matthew Barber, based on the novel of the same name by Elizabeth Von Arnim. As directed by Bonnie J. Monte, the Shakespeare Theatre’s Artistic Director, this gem of a play shows the restorative powers of nature and love. It avoids the easy misstep into farce, never overplaying its comic hand, and stays emotionally true to its characters. It is, one dares to say, a perfect production of a perfect play.

Enchanted April follows two married women, Lotty Wilton (Monette Magrath) and Rose Arnott (Carey Van Driest), in 1922 England. Their husbands, Mellersh (Greg Jackson) and Frederick (Anthony Marble) have no clue about their wives’ emotional needs.  Spotting an advertisement for an Italian castle available to rent, Lotty, believing in the magic of coincidences, relentlessly convinces staid Rose to pool their money and go off – sans husbands – to Italy.  Lotty advertises for two other single women to accompany them on their adventure and share expenses.  The traveling companions they find are the aristocratic “modern,” Lady Caroline Bramble (Samantha Bruce) and the opinionated, custom-bound Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Shepherd).

A scene from Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's "Enchanted April."
A scene from Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s “Enchanted April.”

Arriving at the castle, run by the earthy Constanza (Celeste Ciulla), the women settle in to enjoy the warm sun, gardens, and sea.  Their manless idyll is interrupted by the arrival of the castle’s owner, English artist Anthony Wilding (Aaron McDaniel).  The atmosphere of the Italian spring works its wiles on the four women, who open up to each other about secrets in their pasts.  Lotty, feeling more secure about herself, invites Mellersh to come to the castle and encourages Rose to invite Frederick as well. After the men arrive, the full moon, the scents from the gardens, and the gentle warmth of an April night in Italy work their final magic on all the characters.

The actors, under Monte’s skillful direction, give true, nuanced performances.  Each of the four main women has multiple chances to shine, while Ciulla’s Constanza is a comic delight with her heavy walk and her exasperated asides in Italian.  The emotional arcs of each of the characters – including Mellersh, Frederick, and Anthony – are rooted in a strong reality.

A scene from Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's "Enchanted April."
A scene from Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s “Enchanted April.”

The Shakespeare Theatre’s design staff comes up to their usual high standard, with a flexible interior design for the first act in England which changes into a magical Italian outdoor terrace in the second act, with hanging vines of wisteria and a changing sky in the background, the creation of Scenic Designer Bonnie J. Monte and Lighting Designer Michael Giannitti.  Just as magical are the character-perfect costumes for the women, designed by Paul Canada.

Enchanted April offers playgoers a balm for the soul, a respite for the stresses of the world. It reminds us that coincidences can offer guideposts to action, and that being in nature, taking a break from the everyday routine, can melt away cares and mend hearts.  Enchanted April shows off the creative skills of the Shakespeare Theatre at their best.  I cannot more strongly recommend you take the time to let the magic of Enchanted April wash over you.

Enchanted April is offered by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.W. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through June 26th. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600. The theater requires the wearing of masks inside the building.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.