At the beginning of “Blithe Spirit,” Charles and Ruth are drinking martinis, and chatting about the seance that will soon take place at their house.
“You must promise not to catch my eye,” says Ruth. “If I giggle — and I’m very likely to — it will ruin everything.”
In the classic Noël Coward comedy, which is currently being presented at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, things go awry when the seance conjures up a real ghost, who then proceeds to wreak havoc on Charles and Ruth’s comfortable though, it seems, somewhat staid life together.
Under the direction of Victoria Mack (who has appeared in many STNJ productions as an actress over the last decade, though she is making her debut as a STNJ director here), the seven-member cast delivers Coward’s witty zingers with sharp comic timing, and capitalize on every opportunity for physical comedy. And there are quite a lot of them.
Charles (Brent Harris) is a successful writer; Ruth (Kate MacCluggage) his second wife. As research for an upcoming novel, Charles hires local eccentric Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford) to hold a seance in his house.
He doesn’t expect anything to come of it; he just wants to see how it’s done. Also attending the seance are an even greater skeptic, Dr. Bradman (Ames Adamson) and his somewhat more enthusiastic wife, Violet (Margot White).
Rounding out the cast is Bethany Kay as Charles and Ruth’s new, eager-to-please but often bumbling maid Edith, and Susan Maris as Elvira, Charles’ dead first wife, who arrives in ghost form after the seance, and can be seen and heard by Charles only.
Charles, Kate and the Bradmans are all fairly straitlaced; Madame Arcati, Elvira and Edith are all wondrous wild cards.
Madame Arcati is given to goofy theatricality, and though she is not a scam artist, she isn’t fully confident in her powers, either. She seems to be a bit surprised when she learns that a ghost has indeed “materialized” from her efforts.
Elvira is an impish ghost, relishing the opportunity to spar playfully, once again, with her husband, and create something of a love triangle with him and Ruth. Though Coward described Elvira as “grey (and) not quite of this world,” Mack goes in another direction, making her seem youthful and full of life, so that it almost seems like Charles could start over again with her (though he’s already moved on, after her death, and started over with someone else). And since no character except Charles can see her, even when aware of her presence, she has a lot of fun wandering around the stage as characters are trying to talk to her, and freaking them out by moving things wildly.
Kay also gets a lot of laughs, as Edith — who tends to break into a full run instead of a dignified walk when she’s trying to get things done quickly — tries to rein in her excessive enthusiasm.
Coward subtitled his play an “An Improbable Farce” and, in the program’s director’s notes, Mack emphasizes its lightness and silliness. It was written and first performed in 1941, when London was being bombed regularly. “Coward, no stranger to destruction and loss, challenges us to find silliness and happiness in our lives, not in spite of the danger outside the door, but because of it,” Mack writes.
That’s one way to look at it. But you could also say that Elvira, despite her charms, represents an uncontrollable, impossible-to-comprehend force, and even turns violent at one point (though she remains flippant about it). Charles and Ruth are under siege, in a way: Elvira, quite literally, takes over their lives. It’s no wonder why “Blithe Spirit” resonated with London audiences at the time, and continues to touch on something deep, despite its surface frivolity.
“Blithe Spirit” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Sept. 2; visit shakespearenj.org.