What must be every director’s worst nightmare, the loss of a key actor late in the rehearsal process, befell Les Epstein just days before his production of “Blithe Spirit” was to open at Showtimers.
Fortunately, Corey M. Stewart was willing to take on the role of Charles Condomine in addition to his duties as the show’s stage manager. Condomine is the novelist at the center of Noel Coward’s 1941 comedy.
Here’s the good news: Stewart does a bang-up job. Occasional peeks at the script on opening night did nothing to detract from his expressive vocal and physical performance. It can only improve as the run continues.
What’s more, Stewart has the support of a stellar cast. Sally Miller and Betsy Quillen are particularly strong.
Coward is said to have written “Blithe Spirit” in just six days. It is set in the Kentish home of Condomine and his second wife, Ruth (Quillen). London is burning under the onslaught of Nazi bombs but the denizens of Coward’s creation seem oblivious to the war.
Instead, their concern is the seance that Charles has arranged for the evening. Its purpose is to equip the novelist with grist for his planned book on the occult. He has invited a medium called Madame Arcati (Miller) to lead the proceedings.
Things go wildly awry when the ashen spirit of Condomine’s late first wife, played by Wendy Neuman, is inadvertently summoned forth. Her name is Elvira and she is wickedly determined to reclaim Charles, dead or alive.
That understandably puts her at odds with Ruth, his strong-willed living spouse. Their battle gives rise to many of Coward’s funniest lines, though of course the entire play is replete with his legendary wit and wordplay.
Ruth must contend not only with Elvira but with Charles, who to her mind is way too indulgent of their spectral visitor. Quillen makes her character a convincing study in anger and exasperation. Neuman’s first-night Elvira was a bit reserved at the start but more commanding as the play went on.
As for Miller, Madame Arcati seems a character she was born to play. She’s comically over the top with her lines, various other vocal effects and even the occasional hippity-hop suggestion of dance. If not for the strengths of Stewart and Quillen, she would walk away with the show.
Rounding out the cast are Sandi Rhodes as the Condomines’ eccentric maid (a small but critical role); Lyle Blake Smythers as Dr. Bradman; and Lillian Alexander as his gabby wife Violet.
Epstein, Stewart and Eric LaPrad designed the pleasing set. The effective lighting is by Sean Neff. Costumes are by Jamie Choina Stewart and Aiden Skye Jameson and seem appropriate to time and place.
Many modern comedies would be doddering toward obscurity at the age of “Blithe Spirit.” It is the happy exception, especially when acted by a cast as capable as director Epstein’s ensemble. Area community theater buffs should find it much to their liking.