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Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on September 21st, 2011, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 12, Issue 29 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 12, Issue 29

Ghostly good

Blithe Spirit raises laughs

BY BRENT M. PARKER

Santa Maria Civic Theatre is haunted with hilarity by its latest production, Blithe Spirit, a comedy in three acts by the celebrated Noel Coward. The show is about a man haunted by the ghost of his first wife—much to the chagrin of his second wife.


Say ‘séance’:
Gathered to commune with the dead, Mr. Bradman (Craig Scott), Ruth (Katie Cornell), Madame Arcati (Dixie Arthur), Charles Condomine (Tim McManus), and Mrs. Bradman (Linda Scott) get more than they bargained for.
PHOTO COURTESY SANTA MARIA CIVIC THEATRE/PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD

Alan H. Foster directs this charming production of a community theater favorite. It’s a light comedy, but it does have some satirical bite regarding marriage and “polite” society.

The play premiered on London’s West End in 1941 and set a record for longest-running non-musical British play at that time. Rex Harrison starred in the 1945 film version, and a Broadway musical adaptation, High Spirits, followed in 1964.

Charles Condomine (Tim McManus) is a successful novelist who lives in the British countryside with his second wife, Ruth (Katie Cornell), his first wife Elvira having passed away some years earlier. Ruth teasingly suggests that he preferred Elvira, who was supposedly both more “physical” and “ethereal” than her. He’s idealized her since her death. But that notion is easily shrugged off ... it seems. The Condomines’ biggest problem in life appears to be teaching their over-zealous young maid (the energetic and earnest young Meagan Kuchan) to slow down. Oh, little do they know what’s in store for them.

The couple is preparing to host a séance by local medium Madame Arcati (Dixie Arthur). They pledge to pretend to take it seriously, but really Charles just wants to pick up some “tricks of the trade” as research for his latest novel—and to have a bit of a lark at Arcati’s expense.

Act One seems rather long-winded by modern standards. On their way to the plot, the characters get off on tangents, such as Madame Arcati recounting the scandalous tale of some princess about which she’d been writing a biography. While this creates something of a “hurry up with the haunting, already” feeling, in retrospect, perhaps it serves to set up Charles and Ruth’s ordinary socialite life before chaos is let loose upon them.


Living vs. dead:
Ruth (Katie Cornell) worries that her husband Charles (Tim McManus) likes his former wife, the late Elvira (Angela Hutt-Chamberlin) more than he likes her.
PHOTO COURTESY SANTA MARIA CIVIC THEATRE/PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD

There’s a lot of comic material to work with for the actress playing Madame Arcati—her stiff-upper-lip, charge-straight-ahead attitude, her plainly stated eccentric beliefs, her tendency to sniff around for “ectoplasm,” her umbrage at the slightest suggestion of mockery—and Arthur takes full advantage of it all. We learn some interesting facts about the afterlife from her: You can still catch a cold there, and you might find yourself playing tennis with Genghis Khan.

The skeptical Dr. Bradman (Craig Scott) and his wife (his real-life wife Linda Scott) attend the event, too. The characters don’t really have a personal stake in the story, so the Scotts don’t have much to do, but their presence does add to the excitement of the séance.

At the sound of a sentimental little ditty called “Always,” a ghost with a gray face and sparkly streaks in her hair materializes. Charles screams; it’s his beloved Elvira (Angela Hutt-Chamberlin)! (The name, by the way, is pronounced “El-veer-a,” not “El-vie-ra.” She’s a ghost, after all, not a vampiric late-night horror movie TV hostess.)

Only Charles can see her, which, of course, leads to routines in which Charles is yelling at Elvira but Ruth thinks he’s addressing her, and in which characters other than Charles try to talk to Elvira but are unaware of her (usually mocking) responses.

Before the séance, Charles is confident, smug, and flippant—so it’s hilarious to see him completely come undone by Elvira. Ditto for Ruth, who takes a quick spiraling nosedive from well-groomed wife to jealous hysteric. Both actors do great with Coward’s sardonic, dry British humor. As the act draws to a close, the Condomines (and the audience) are left to wonder whether Charles’ heart’s still on fire for Elvira (again, despite that song reference, it’s pronounced “El-veer-a”).


Grave matters
Blithe Spirit shows at the Santa Maria Civic Theatre, 1660 N. McClelland, on Sept. 23, 24, and 30, and Oct. 1, 7, and 8. Tickets cost $15, and all shows start at 8 p.m. For more information, visit smct.org or call 922-4442.

The pace picks up in Act Two, as Elvira gets up to her malicious mischief, and keeps right on rolling through Act Three. (Unfortunately for the Condomines, the Ghostbusters won’t go into business for another four decades.) Hutt-Chamberlin is filled with impish glee, especially as Coward implies some rather naughty things about the character (and remember, this was written way back in the ’40s!).

The set is full of great period detail, as we’ve come to expect from SMCT. The tricks of the séance (the requisite unruly table) and the “invisible ghost” scenes are very well done.

See Blithe Spirit while it’s still in corporeal form at SMCT.

Summon freelancer Brent Parker via Arts Editor Shelly Cone at scone@santamariasun.com.