Encore Michigan

‘Blithe Spirit’ thrills at The Meadow Brook

Review January 10, 2020 Patrice Nolan

ROCHESTER, Mich.— Meadow Brook Theatre has a reputation for sumptuous production values and this ‘40s-era Nöel Coward comedy, Blithe Spirit, plays to their strong suit. It’s all about the British privileged class – snobs and hedonists whose fabulous homes and spectacular wardrobes give MBT designers so much to work with.

Coward borrowed the title for this romp from Shelley’s “To a Skylark” as a tongue-and-cheek reference to the late Elvira Condomine, whose spirit is anything but blithe. The play opens as her widower, the successful novelist Charles Condomine, is planning a dinner party and séance with Ruth, Wife #2, and a couple of old friends, Dr. Bradman and wife Violet. Condomine has engaged the services of a renowned medium, Madame Arcati, in order to glean authentic details of her trade that he secretly plans to use in his work-in-progress – a novel dealing with a fraudulent spiritualist.

Unfortunately for Charles, the eccentric Arcati is the real deal, and she conjures Elvira’s ghost, who resents Ruth and refuses to surrender her prior claim. Of course, only Charles can see Elvira, leaving everyone else to question his sanity.

That this is a comedy leveraging untimely death as its source of humor is a tribute to Coward’s genius. Coward himself noted that if we cared about these people, the play would be a tragedy. As it is, we can enjoy the droll banter and outrageous plot twists with guilt-free abandon. Which is, by the way, exactly what the characters in the play are doing.

Blithe Spirit is gleefully directed by MBT Artistic Director Travis S. Walter, who adheres to the original script, presented in three acts with two brief intermissions. The veteran cast swats Coward’s wicked repartee about as if engaged in a friendly badminton game. Timothy C. Goodwin, as Charles Condomine, exhibits the British-upper-crust nonchalance we expect from anyone wearing a smoking jacket. After the initial shock, he seems quite chipper about the idea of sharing his home with both Ruth and Elvira, even though one of them is dead. Dani Cochrane, as Ruth, keeps a stiff upper lip and seems less worried about the actual haunting than the potential embarrassment of being party to her husband’s “astral bigamy.” Leslie Ann Handelman, as Elvira, is a spectral vixen oozing ennui from seven years spent in the afterlife. She makes it clear that in death, as in life, she expects to have her way. Lynnae Lehfeldt is delightful as the over-the-top, down-to-earth medium, Madame Arcati; she is as proud of her craft as any skilled tradesman and twice as loud. Rounding out the cast are Phil Powers and Stephanie Nichols as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, with Katie Akers as the all-too-eager maid, Edith.  

This is a beautiful production, worth seeing for its aesthetics. The lavish Condomine home (complete with supernatural effects) is the work of Scenic Designer Kristen Gribbin, with Lighting Design by Phillip Hall. The costumes (especially for Ruth Condomine) are smart and elegant – the work of designer Corey Collins. Sound design, important to both the mood and the plot of this piece, is by Mike Duncan.

Noel Coward knew that the best remedy for the blahs is to lift ones spirits with a bit of high-brow humor. Blithe Spirit at Meadow Brook Theatre perfectly fills the bill.

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Read more about Blithe Spirit 01/08–02/02

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Week of 5/25/2020

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