Blithe Spirit

Just in time for Halloween comes the Hale Center Theater’s production of Noel Coward’s classic comedy “Blithe Spirit.”

Coward wrote several decades ago, and in England, so his plays run the risk of being inaccessible (or, worse, unfunny) to modern American audiences.

Fortunately, veteran local director Syd Riggs has done a fine job of making the play not just understandable, but downright funny.

The play has two different casts, depending on which night you see it. I saw it on a Friday, although a couple Saturday cast members had traded with their Friday counterparts and were performing with the Friday group. It makes it very hard to review the show, for while the cast I saw was great, for all I know the other cast is awful! I doubt that’s the case, of course, but you see the dilemma.

At any rate, the play follows a man named Charles (Mark Pulham or Carl Belliston), a writer, who invites a psychic (Maureen Eastwood — the same for all performances) over to the house to perform a seance. Seems one of his characters is a medium, and he wants to see how they do their thing.

The psychic, the very wacky Madame Arcati, inadvertently calls up the spirit of Charles’s dead wife, Elvira (Nannette Watts or Anne Swenson) — but only Charles can see or hear her. This is quite alarming to his current wife, Ruth (Ashley Neves or Kierston Isom), as you can well imagine. Lots of wackiness ensues.

The play is pleasant and enjoyable, with many hearty laughs. There is never a time when the audience laughs hysterically, or for very long; such is not the nature of the play. It’s a prim and proper comedy, though its subject matter is obviously silly.

Many excellent things are done in spite of the limitations of being a theater-in-the-round. With audience members on all four sides, there is no backstage area for cast members or technicians to hide. This set-up is great for creating an intimate feeling with the audience, and for making things seem up-close-and-personal, but it usually limits the “tricks” you can do.

And yet despite this, several great special effects are accomplished. For one thing, Elvira the ghost has an echo in her voice. This is done with a small, barely noticeable cordless microphone, and it’s nothing a large theater wouldn’t try — but again, being an intimate theater-in-the-round, it seems unusual, almost ingenious.

Several other neat tricks come into play as invisible ghosts commit various acts of mischief. Tables lift off the floor, things fall of shelves, there are some very ethereal lighting effects — one character even gets slapped around by someone the audience can’t see! These are all relatively easy tricks to pull off, magic-wise, but having the audience so close to the action would normally limit the possibilities. Not here, though. This is a small community theater that doeesn’t KNOW it’s a small community theater.

The performances are by and large very good. Mark Pulham, as Charles, does a fine job of portraying his character’s frustrations and occasional bursts of mania as his situation becomes more and more maddening. The supporting cast is also quite adept, with believable English accents and behavior all around.

The play, unfortunately, clocks in at just over two and a half hours, and it FEELS too long. This is partially due to Coward’s lengthy script, but I think the production could move a bit faster than it does. Two weeks into the show’s run, Maureen Eastwood (who plays the psychic) still seemed not to know her lines very well. Her character is delightful and enthusiastic, but one can tell that she’s bogged down every now and then with remembering what she’s supposed to say. This slows down the action considerably.

Also, the play never really builds to a climax. The plot progresses in an orderly manner, with a few surprises and twists here and there, and the end definitely seems like a good ending — but it doesn’t come to a crux like you expect a show to do. If anything, the pacing needs work. Things should move faster here and there, and there could be a little more energy in other places.

Perhaps these are minor quibbles, though. The play is funny, enjoyable, and well-staged (don’t worry about where you sit; the characters move around enough to where no one has their back to you very much). The show is also unashamedly without a “moral” or lesson to be learned; it’s just fun for the sake of fun.

And that’s what an evening of entertainment is all about.

All I remember about this show is that I saw it with a date who looked like Scully on "The X-Files." The show was pretty good, too, apparently, if you believe what I said in the review.

Maureen Eastwood redeemed herself a year later in Springville's "Arsenic and Old Lace," where she was absolutely delightful (and knew her lines).