For an actual séance, many of us might need a little openness or suspended disbelief – but few such mental calisthenics will be required to enjoy the comic misfortunes in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. The Hedgerow Theatre kicks off its season with a buoyant production that breathes new vision into this 1941 classic.
Socialite and author Charles Condomine (Jared Reed) and his second wife, Ruth (Jennifer Summerfield), invite the spiritualist Madame Arcati (Penelope Reed) to their home for a séance. Charles wants material for his newest book; Ruth and her friends Doctor Bradman (Michael Fuchs) and his wife (Stacy Skinner) seek an amusing way to spend the evening. All get more than they bargained for when Arcati's trance materializes the ghost of Elvira (Maryruth Stine), Charles' temperamental first wife. Over two and a half hours (broken by two generous intermissions), Stine's Elvira floats around the house angelically, enticing Charles, annoying Ruth, and confusing their already befuddled housekeeper, Edith (Susan Wefel).
From the start, Carly L. Bodnar's direction rushes through the chatty first act, leaving Reed pressed for time to deliver his deliciously witty role. On the whole, however, that pace is a good thing. When Arcati arrives, Penelope Reed's exuberance pops open the humor as though it were a magnum of Dom Perignon: She whirls about spouting clichés, ends each sentence with exclamations, and elicits laughs with her contorted postures. Her humor and Wefel's more understated gags furnish a wide range of comic styles.
Justin Baker's outstanding lighting design uses small-budget effects to evoke supernatural hilarity, and Sarah Mitchell's smart costumes range from Charles' dapper blue-grey suit to the vibrant colors of Acati's headband and waistband. Shaun Yates' set and Grey Kelsey's props evoke a home somewhat less rich than one owned by a wealthy couple who can socialize in London and afford two servants. This is but a minor blemish before Act 1 steams into full swing.
Coward called all these characters unlikable, but Bodnar's direction gives the main characters attractive qualities. Moments of genuine affection dot the dialogue of Act 2 as all three sides in this love triangle navigate grief and remorse. In moments of quiet sincerity, Reed invites deserving sympathy. As the two wives, Stine and Summerfield conjure in moving ways with love reluctantly requited.
Like most of Coward's work, Blithe Spirit contains his signature flippancy. If the departed possessed voices, they too would laugh, and yet they might also pause to appreciate how both time and the Hedgerow have infused an endearing quality into this seven-decades-old masterwork.