Monday, September 23, 2013

Loosening the Stays: Enchanted April

Marla McLean as Lady Caroline Bramble in Enchanted April (photo by Emily Cooper)

Enchanted April, one of this Shaw Festival season’s audience pleasers, has a long and somewhat complicated lineage. This tale of four women whose lives turn around when they share an Italian castle for a month began in 1922 as a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim that became a play three years later and a (rather insipid) movie in 1935. Then the property was forgotten for more than half a century until, in 1991, Mike Newell remade it with Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence and Polly Walker as the ladies and Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent and Michael Kitchen in the male roles. This graceful comedy about the regenerative powers of sunshine and leisure prompted a second stage version by Matthew Barber, which appeared briefly on Broadway in 2003 with Molly Ringwald and Jayne Atkinson. It didn’t get much respect but it was quite pleasurable, and the two stars, playing the repressed Rose and the impulsive, determined Lotty (the roles given to Richardson and Lawrence in the film) – who secure the vacation house, advertise for companions, and become fast friends – were splendid. Jackie Maxwell’s production at the Shaw, where (like Guys and Dolls and Lady Windermere’s Fan) it’s filling the spacious Festival Theatre, is also a success.

The four women come to this holiday at different moments in their lives, though they’re all in need of some kind of refurbishment. Lotty (Moya O’Connell) is married to a solicitor, Mellersh Wilton (Jeff Meadows), who is both foolishly self-aggrandizing and irritatingly cautious and conservative, and he expects his wife to be at his service. She needs a break from the routine he imposes on her – and from the dispiriting English weather. The marriage between Rose (Tara Rosling) and Frederick Arnott (Patrick Galligan) appears to be in more serious trouble. He writes historical potboilers under a flashy pseudonym, Florian Ayers, and travels around to promote them, and since she has no interest in accompanying him he flirts with other women when he’s away from her. She’s a tightly brought-up Christian lady who doesn't approve of his writing because, she argues, “one should not write books that God would not like to read.” In order for their relationship to retrench, each has to rediscover the other’s value (and she needs some fine Italian sun to melt away some of her prejudices). By chance, one of the women who answers Lotty and Rose’s ad is the object of Frederick’s latest flirtation, though Rose has no idea. She’s Lady Caroline Bramble (Marla McLean), an aristocratic flapper who claims to long for some relief from the constant attention of men – though, as it turns out, what she really wants is the attention of a different kind of man than the gadflies she’s used to. Finally, Mrs. Graves (Donna Belleville) is a widow with opinions on everything and an imperious tone that, at first, drives her companions to distraction, while the housekeeper, Costanza (Sharry Flett), refers to her as “imperialista.” But the beauty of the landscape – rendered in Maxfield Parrish colors (pinks, golds, magentas, and a storybook azure for the sky) by the set and lighting designers, William Schmuck and Kevin Lamotte – calms everyone down. And the appearance of Mellersh (by invitation) and Frederick (who’s actually chasing Caroline) in this setting – in addition to the portrait painter, Antony Wilding (Kevin McGarry), who owns the house – turns the play into a romantic comedy.

The warm, slightly fantastical visuals get to the production, too. In the first act O’Donnell tries too hard for her laughs and the whole production comes across as a little desperate for the approval of the audience, but by act two that element has vanished. The entire cast is expert, though I especially liked Meadows, who plays Mellersh like a P.G. Wodehouse character, and Belleville, whose line readings are droll and brittle. (She reminded me of Edna May Oliver in those M-G-M literary adaptations of the thirties and early forties.) Rosling is excellent, and McLean gives Lady Caroline an undercurrent of melancholy and makes a stunning entrance in the final, moonlit scene in a lime-colored gown with silver high heels. Schmuck, who also designed the costumes, has a field day with the actresses in this scene; Belleville, for instance, sports a pleated turquoise silk with a brown and rust jacket that takes an easy decade off Mrs. Graves’s age. Enchanted April is just a trifle, but it’s a trifle executed with panache.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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