More than a ghost lacks life in `Blithe Spirit'

Energy, breezy style missing in production of Noel Coward play

October 28, 1999|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fun is the only real reason to stage Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," or to see it. It isn't one of Coward's smarter or more insightful plays. It's simply a comic romp about a man whose dead first wife comes back to haunt him and his second wife.

The play might be simple, but playing it is not. This story about the ghost who came to dinner demands a breezy style and carefree energy that's in short supply in the current production by the Columbia Community Players. Director William T. Brown's stage should be alive with frantic action and distracted antics, but too often it looks like an ordinary cocktail hour, with the actors sitting placidly on the stuffed furniture and talking in low tones.

The raw material in "Blithe Spirit" is too thin to survive a less-than-giddy performance. The first act is pretty dull, unless the actors pack it full of imaginative business. That's possible, because Coward provides a sharp-tongued couple (Charles, a writer, and Ruth, his second wife) and a nervous servant who sprints through the house.

But though Daniel Ferris and Trisha A. Thompson project a kind of up-to-date elegance as Charles and Ruth, they don't seem terribly engaged in their conversations. The chatter is flat until Madame Arcati, the local spiritual medium, makes her entrance. (The reason hardly matters.)

As Madame Arcati, Joan Corcoran isn't afraid to be extravagant, which is a bit of a blessing. Madame Arcati gathers Charles, Ruth and their dinner guests around for a seance that miraculously produces the ghost of Elvira, Charles' vivacious first wife. Trouble is, only Charles can see her. And of course, Ruth doesn't want her around.

Things ought to get more colorful when the mischievous Elvira blows in, but they don't. For starters, Cherie LeBard's Elvira is literally gray -- gray dress, gray hair, even gray face. It's the most obvious way to signal that Elvira is a ghost, perhaps, but it bleeds a lot of life out of the most lively character in the play.

LeBard gives her Elvira the high voice and petulant self-interest of a spoiled child, but you never feel the potent attraction for Charles that has virtually brought Elvira back from the dead. Ferris' Charles doesn't really capitalize on the dilemma of being caught between two women, either. He treats it as a boring inconvenience. No fun!

The auditorium at Slayton House in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center has a peculiarity that conspires against this production. About 40 feet separate the front of the stage from the "stadium-style" raised seating where most of the audience sits (Although they could sit in seats on the floor closer to the stage, most people don't). That means the actors have to work doubly hard to connect with the crowd. As it is, this "Blithe Spirit" seems distant.

Columbia Community Players presents Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" at Slayton House at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are $10, $9 for seniors and students. Reservations and information: 410-637-5289.

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