Coward's 'Private Lives' a welcome period piece

Colonial Players' production hits the mark

September 23, 2010|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Colonial Players starts its 62nd season with a bright production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," delivering a period piece welcome in the 21st century.

Coward penned the play in 1930 as a starring vehicle for himself and actress Gertrude Lawrence. "Private Lives" tells the story of Elyot and Amanda, divorced for five years, who meet again in adjacent suites in a French hotel as they honeymoon with new spouses.

Finding their love rekindled, the couple flees to Amanda's Paris apartment, leaving behind Elyot's bride, Sibyl, and Amanda's groom, Victor. Sibyl and Victor decide to pursue their spouses, soon catching up with them for a surprise reunion.

Director Rick Wade is at the helm of the production, his 27th for Colonial Players. Wade has an unerring sense of what is required to make each scene sparkle. Director last season of Bay Theatre's "Harvey" — one of only two local plays nominated for a D.C. Theatre Scene audience choice award — Wade again draws stellar performances from the cast.

Actor Pat Reynolds is enthralling throughout, beginning with the opening scene where as Elyot he strides across his balcony to pause in a delicious double-take as he sees ex-wife Amanda on a balcony across from his. His British accent is credible, and he delivers every sardonic line with agility and clarity.

Reynolds seems to relish the demanding physical scenes, which require him to fend off numerous attacks that land him on the floor. He displays an unmistakable chemistry with Zarah Rautell, who plays Amanda; the two starred together a few years ago in a Colonial Players' production of "Philadelphia Story."

Rautell's Amanda, too, shows exquisite timing in her initial encounter with her ex-husband. This is an Amanda who projects a Hollywood '30s glamour while hinting that beneath exists a strong, vibrant woman unafraid to express her feelings. Rautell is equally skilled in retaining her British accent throughout to give added emphasis to each biting line. She is also required to thrash about on the floor with Elyot as their verbal attacks turn physical.

Shirley Panek, seen most recently as Sheriff Kaye in Colonial Players' "Dog Logic," returns to display her versatility here in the role of Elyot's naïve bride, Sibyl. Vulnerable, wronged Sibyl might incur our sympathy if she weren't so immature and annoyingly insistent in demanding explanations from Elyot that can't be given. Panek's Sibyl transitions from fretful, self-pitying crying bride to a furiously warring companion.

As Amanda's recent groom, Victor, Lawrence Griffin is properly priggish and humorously outmatched by willful, self-assured Amanda. Never the object of our pity, Griffin's Victor is most amusing in his halting confrontations with Elyot and in his later befuddled scenes with Panek's Sibyl, first consoling her and later expressing his annoyance at her tantrums.

Meg Venton plays Louise, Amanda's maid, delivering all her lines in French. Her wonderful exasperated expressions added extra zest to many of her scenes.

The play is filled with memorable lines. One that lingers is Elyot's response to a song he describes as a "nasty insistent little tune." Amanda replies: "Strange how potent cheap music is." Many of us may have experienced similar reactions, but few could have expressed our feelings so well.

In addition to playing Louise, Venton also designed the costumes. Amanda's garb helps perfect her image. Elyot too is handsomely garbed, and Victor authentically enhanced by his costumes.

Credit is due set designer and decorator Barry Christy, lighting designer Jeannie Beall and producer Nancy Long along with everyone else who contributed to this sparkling opening Colonial Players production.

If you go

"Private Lives" continues on weekends Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 9. Single tickets are available as well as season subscriptions. Information at thecolonialplayers.org or by calling 410-268-7373.

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