Over pre-dinner dry martinis, Ruth Condomine (Kristan Raymond Robinson) is utterly blasé, really, as she and her husband Charles (Chris Curtis) discuss his “maddening” late first wife, Elvira. After all, Ruth and Charles have been married for five years, in the sort of wise, mature union that has risen far above scenes, jealousies, and “careless rapture.” Elvira is a mere specter of Charles’s past, an intangible idea. After dinner, however, when Elvira (Constance Witman) actually breezes right into the sitting room, things quickly grow less rhetorical and, thus, far, far less decorous. Patience and propriety soon deteriorate in Noel Coward’s British comedy of astral bigamy, Blithe Spirit, directed by Tim Robinson for Mad Dogs and Englishmen, at the Players’ Ring.
Elvira appears with the help of the ebulliently eccentric Madame Arcati (the very satisfying Carol Davenport), who puts on an after-dinner séance for the Condomines and their neighbors the Bradfords (Thorpe Feidt and Megan Davenport Karas, in a rather interesting marital pairing). Farce ensues as Elvira, visible only to Charles, wreaks havoc on the Condomines’ domestic civility.
Robinson’s magnificent Ruth is the ballast of this production, and is everything she should be — elegant, efficient, dry, and formidably intelligent. “She has a hard mouth,” Elvira says of her, and Robinson conveys this edge with sterling form, even when Ruth is entrenched in the timeless English conventions of decorum. Her husband, in Curtis’s hands, is quite as clever but with somewhat less steel and vigor. There’s a hapless quality to Charles despite his droll quips, and it gives a real verisimilitude to the verbal thrashings he takes from the ladies.
As the geist at the center of the household’s tempest, Witman’s Elvira is pouty and carelessly self-absorbed, but a bit on the mild side. She’s irritating in her catty vanities, but doesn’t quite have the charm, forcefulness, and sensuality to be the fully maddening creature that Charles describes early on. Still, her flighty, peevish flitting plays well against the arch solidity of Robinson’s Ruth, and her scowls, sighs, and stomps convey just how tetchily disaffected Elvira is.
Although death seems to do nothing for petulance and other deeply ingrained personality flaws, it does of course transform the corporeal form. This is nicely suggested in this production by the shimmery white that Elvira wears throughout the play, but the cosmetics of her ghostliness are a touch too heavy, her made-up paleness more chalky than spectral. Although it might be tiresome of me to dwell upon the textures and colors of the “passed over,” this is the stuff, after all, by which we thrill at the Otherworld. Hues are of particular importance because they help dramatize the physical contrast between the ectoplasmic and the living, and Mad Dogs’ production could do more to visually play it up. During Elvira’s first entrance, for example, she sweeps into the cream-toned sitting room and into immediate foiling with Ruth, who in this scene wears pale blue. The effect of her arrival might have been electrified by grounding the room in darker, earthy tones, and dressing Ruth in deep rust or wine.