Encore Michigan

Inspired Acting Co’s first production, ‘Private Lives’ is lively indeed

Review May 02, 2023 Bridgette Redman

WALLED LAKE, MI–Love can bring out the best and the worst in people, and Noel Coward’s Private Lives” sets out to put this on display in ways that today can be seen as a bit cringe-worthy.

The Inspired Acting Company—a new Walled Lake troupe that is putting on its first show in the space where the Jewish Ensemble Theatre used to perform—is producing this classic play that explores the tangled web of relationships between two couples on their honeymoon, as they grapple with their past and present loves.

Set in 1930s France, the play offers a glimpse into the complexities of human emotions and desires, and the ways in which love can both liberate and entrap. Directed by the new company’s producing artistic director Jeff Thomakos, it’s a challenging show where not only do the choices of the characters make the audience squirm a bit, but so do the gender role stereotypes and colonialism of a bygone era.

Thomakos embraces the romanticism of the show while making no excuses for characters he compares with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. One of his biggest achievements in this two-hour plus show is that he masters the pacing, not being afraid to mix it up so that things build and create both comic timing and dramatic tension.

The once-divorced couple, Amanda and Elyot, are steeped in passion, a passion that alternatively brings out the best and worst in each of them. They are volatile individuals who are impetuous and quick to soar with joy and growl with cruel anger. Jeannine Thompson as Amanda and Joseph Sfair as Elyot tap into that passion and there are moments when the connection between them is so hot it threatens to set the flats on fire. They seem to belong so much together that you’re almost tempted to overlook the fact that they just dumped their new spouses on their honeymoons.

Intimacy Director Marissa Lane did an excellent job of adding sizzle to the show with creative choices that clearly showed the difference in passion between the various couples.

Thompson finds depth in a character who could easily be a stereotype. Coward writes her as a sophisticated woman who is willing to flaunt societal norms and refuses to be a helpless butterfly. Thompson taps into that, but she also infuses Amanda with a playfulness and sweetness that tempts you into liking a woman who really does not treat others well. 

Thompson’s Amanda has a hardened edge to her, but there is also a vulnerability.  Her performance is universally strong. Her clear voice travels a full range from tenderness to fury and she bewitches the audience with her non-verbal work, especially in the scripted silences where she displays enchanting storytelling.

Sfair captures the suave sophistication of Elyot, creating an English roustabout who always has a smart aleck answer to everything and has little use for convention or proper behavior. He gives Elyot a great deal of charisma and energy.

Unfortunately, despite the space being an intimate one, it was often difficult to hear him because his voice dropped when he was close to other actors and he tended to spit lines out too rapidly at important moments.

Dennis Kleinsmith gives Victor, Amanda’s new husband, a proper amount of stuffiness, fulfilling the type of the proper Englishman who sees the male role as one of protector and women as potential victims of unscrupulous men.

Arden Walker plays Sibyl, Elyot’s new young wife who appears to be everything that Amanda is not. She insists on being overly feminine, delicate and romantic and is convinced that Amanda is naught but a hussy who mistreated the husband she will do right by. If she gets a bit screechy, it is at least a consistent choice that the script supports.

Eli Cavailiero wears many hats, designing the costumes, creating and collecting the props and serving as stage manager. With each character making multiple costume changes, Cavailiero drapes them with period outfits that speak to each character’s personality, whether Victor’s drab mustard-hued suits or Sibyl’s bright flapper dresses. The only disconnect was when Elyot talks about wearing a dressing gown and he is in pajama pants and a top. Either the costume needed to change or the line did.

However, where Cavailiero excels is in the prop design, especially in the second act. He contributes to a highly realistic production with period props that are far more challenging to provide today than when the play was first written. It is necessary for the characters to smoke and he provides smoke-free cigarettes that look highly realistic. The Parisian flat is filled with items that make it look upscale and are highly functional. Many of the props get destroyed or consumed in each performance, meaning he has gathered an ample supply.

Michael Collins does an excellent job designing and building the Parisian flat that is the scene of the second act. It is luxurious and provides the actors with the space they need to create the action of the script. The honeymoon suite balconies of the first act are a bit too flimsy to be convincing as the site of a luxury hotel.

The Inspired Acting Company can be commended for tackling such a complex and challenging classic and for exploring the ways passion can lead people to do both wonderful and horrible things to each other. However, at 93 years old, “Private Lives” can be difficult to watch or to enjoy as a comedy when the humor is drawn from violence and domestic abuse and those two things are treated as a by-product of passionate love. Combined with the stereotypes present, the play doesn’t always age as well as other older or contemporary classics.