How ironic that after two seasons of presenting outdoor shows only, because of the pandemic, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey — kicking off its 2022 season — returns indoors with a show that celebrates fresh air, flora and sunshine.
The first act of the well-acted and flawlessly directed “Enchanted April,” which runs at the The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison through June 26, takes place in dreary England, with its main characters stuck in soul-draining ruts. But in the second act, set in a small castle in Italy, you feel rejuvenation on its way as soon as you see the bright, colorful, flower-filled setting. (STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte is responsible for both the direction and the set design). The characters who are vacationing there have some stuff to work through, and they do, as “Enchanted April” makes its way toward an uplifting ending.
The first act moved a bit slow, but I guess that was part of the point: These characters are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. “I always feel so… negligible,” one says.
The second act is much more lively, though, adding lots of light comedy, plus a jolting surprise twist. But “Enchanted April” never ventures too far into frantic farce, and even the characters who seem like caricatures at first — haughty socialite Lady Caroline Bramble (Samantha Bruce), stuffy lawyer Mellersh Wilton (Greg Jackson) and cranky old lady Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Shepherd) — end up revealing surprising depths.
Matthew Barber wrote the play, based on the 1922 novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim; it ran on Broadway in 2003, 12 years after a movie version (not written by Barber) came out. The 1922 setting is significant, as some of the characters, it turns out, have endured World War I-related hardships, and life is returning to normal for them, and society as a whole.
Monette Magrath plays the central character, the big-hearted, optimistic Lotty Wilton, who, after seeing a newspaper ad, embraces the idea of a Mediterranean getaway first, and puts her foot down when her husband Mellersh tries to tell her no. Lotty enlists a reluctant acquaintance, Rose Arnott (Carey Van Driest), whose relationship with her novelist husband Frederick (Anthony Marble) seems quite troubled. Mrs. Graves and Caroline Bramble make it a foursome.
The first act basically tells how the trip came to be. Once the four women find themselves together, on their own, in Italy, they bond, and reveal things they had previously kept hidden. Lotty is transformed almost immediately; the others take a bit more time. And though there are no men there, at first, that doesn’t last forever, with charming castle owner Anthony Wilding (Aaron McDaniel) and others complicating things.
Adding great support is Celeste Ciulla as the castle’s frequently exasperated housekeeper Constanza; Ciulla is able to generate big laughs just by scowling at her sometimes clueless vacationers and muttering in Italian.
Revelations are had; lives are changed. (In the case of Mrs. Graves, maybe too much; she’s presented as so nasty and self-centered at first that it’s hard to believe she could ever even just be normal). And “Enchanted April,” overall, makes for quite an enchanting new start for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey itself.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presented “Enchanted April” at Drew University in Madison through June 26. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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