by Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, Contributor for ‘Burgh Vivant.
The newly renamed PICT Classic Theater (still spraying graffiti on Hadrian’s Wall) opens up their 18th season with Noel Coward’s wickedly funny, paranormal comedy “Blithe Spirit.” The play’s title refers to a line from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “The Skylark,” but here it is top notch directing, excellent acting, and a classic piece of theater that creates poetry.
Coward perfected the drawing room comedy with his acerbic wit and acid tongue. The characters snipe at one other with urbane, sophisticated humor. “Blithe Spirit” is one of the playwright’s broader comedies, replete with slapstick and the requisite clever repartee.
Charles Condomine (Dan Rodden) is an author with a wicked wit drier than his martini. On the pretense of researching his new novel, Condomine and his second wife, Ruth (Daina Michelle Griffith) hold a séance. Charles invites his friend Dr. Bradman (Jim FitzGerald) and his wife (Lissa Brennan) over to their country home for the occult event.
The Condomine’s have a cook and a maid (writing must have paid better back then). The cook is never seen. The maid, Edith (Karen Baum), however, sprints through the house with manic fervor.
The séance is performed by Madame Arcati (Mary Rawson), a self-proclaimed spiritual specialist. Guests wait with baited breath, half hoping for a magical encounter, even though they remain skeptical.
Then, all hell breaks loose (literally and figuratively) when Arcati conjures up the spirit of Charles Condomine’s first wife, Elvira (Vera Varlamov). Yes. I said Elvira. Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow.
Only the author, Charles Condomine, can see and hear her.
The verbal sparring of the living Condomines, Charles and Ruth, is exacerbated by the pesky poltergeist. Ruth demands to hold Charles’ full attention, but he’s busy placating the apparition of his first wife. Elvira finds the entire predicament hilarious, and enjoys causing mischief between the couple…until Ruth discovers the truth.
Ruth’s jealously conspires to rid the house of the ghost, and calls upon Arcati. The spiritual advisor doesn’t know how to dispatch the phantom. Meanwhile, Charles battles with both wives, living and dead. The characters vault over each other with a dazzling displays of verbal gymnastics.
Chaos ensues, leading to several unexpected twists and turns.
The brilliant script is enhanced by the superb acting of Pittsburgh’s finest performers, such as Rawson, FitzGerald, Griffith and Baum (sounds like a law firm).
Rodden, new to the Pittsburgh stage, is spot on as the British author. It’s a joy to watch his stiff upper lip quiver when he is besieged from the beautiful bride from beyond.
Varlamov is luminescent as the ethereal Elvira. Kudos goes to hair, make up and especially, Costume Designer Joan Markert.
Griffith’s Ruth is spectacular. The actor immerses herself in the role. It’s little wonder why the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette crowned her Performer of the Year in 2013.
Baum plays the goofiest of goofballs. Edith, the maid, is always sprinting to the door, nervously setting down tea, and generally crashing about. Slight spoiler (Can one call spoilers on a 73 year-old play?): the maid is not as inconsequential to the play as many would be led to believe. Baum handles it with aplomb. She remains in character even during the closing bow.
Rawson plays the buoyant clairvoyant as a kindly grandmother with a love for cucumber sandwiches. Someone invite Coward’s Arcati and Wilde’s Algernon to a Victorian tea. They are both fond of the classic canapé.
Director Alan Stanford brings this glorious farce to life (pun always intended). It’s rife with droll humor, slapstick and supernatural fun. It is one enchanted evening, or to paraphrase Shelley, “Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit!”