Stirring Up Trouble

by Cary M. Mazer

Blithe Spirit

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, through July 3, 610-282-WILL

You have to be careful what you start playing around with; you never know what you might conjure up.

I’m not just talking about Charles (Greg Wood) in Noel Coward’s 1941 light comedy, Blithe Spirit, who, researching a novel about the occult, invites the medium Madam Arcati (Sally Mercer) to hold a seance in his living room and accidentally conjures the ghost of his first wife Elvira (Grace Gonglewski).

I’m also talking about director Aaron Posner staging the play, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

Blithe Spirit may be an over-familiar old chestnut. But now that every company is reviving Coward’s plays to celebrate the playwright’s centennial this year, you can begin to see patterns emerging.

After the initial comic situation of Blithe Spirit is exploited — since Charles can see and hear Elvira’s ghost and his wife Ruth (Megan Bellwoar) cannot, she thinks he’s insulting her when he tells Elvira to shut up — you can begin to see what the play is really about. And, with a significant difference, it’s not unlike the situation in Private Lives (revived last season at the Arden) and Design for Living (recently staged at the McCarter).

Like the divorced couple in Private Lives who come back into each other’s lives after they’ve remarried, like the discarded husband who returns to reclaim his wife who has run off with his best friend in Design for Living, the return of Elvira in Blithe Spirit represents the inescapability of previous attachments and the inextinguishability of love, even (in this case) beyond the grave. The three-way relationship between Charles, Elvira and Ruth in Blithe Spirit appears to be like the menage à trois to which the three characters in Design for Living inexorably return, or the elopement of Elyot and Amanda in Private Lives, who can’t live apart even if they can’t live peaceably together.

That’s what the play wants you think, at least at first. Like those other plays, the characters are perfectly charming. And so are the actors who play them in Allentown. Gonglewski looks smashing in her off-the-shoulder red evening gown (designed by Mary Myers), with her spectrally pale sparkly makeup and jet-black bobbed hair, licking her carmined lips with mischievous relish. Wood is suavely charming, in his usual open and earnest way. Bellwoar is more convincing when she is icily demanding than when she is merely petulant. And Mercer is appropriately dotty as Madam Arcati, more an eccentric aesthete — Isadora Duncan with bad posture — than an English village grotesque, sniffing the air for ectoplasm and beckoning with her fingers in delight at having a close encounter with the occult.

In those other plays, the characters’ charm masks a deep, needy, abiding romantic love. But in Blithe Spirit, that’s just the tease. By the time the dust settles on the "astral bigamy," we find out that it wasn’t Charles’ undying love for his wife that conjured up her ghost at the seance but the spectral affinities of the household’s new maid Edith (Madi Distefano, though played, delightfully, by understudy Erin Clare Hurley at the performance I attended). And so the play is not about love at all. And Charles’ superficial charm masks not love but the character’s deep-seated fear and hatred of the women in his life.

Not that the production really explores all this (though Wood is most charming when Charles finds himself, blissfully, alone, temporarily freed from both of his wives). Perhaps we should be glad that the director hasn’t excavated the play’s darker side. I’m not sure that the play can bear the weight of its own misogyny, or that the audience could tolerate it if it could.