When asked late in his career why he refused to acknowledge he was gay, Noel Coward is reported to have replied, “Because there are two old ladies in Worthing who don’t know, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Coward, who died in 1973, had a long list of male lovers. But the legendary showman, actor, singer and raconteur only rarely allowed gay themes to creep into his work.
Coward brought his protean talents to bear often, but in few works more effectively than “Blithe Spirit,” which opens Up the Hill at American Players Theatre’s outdoor amphitheater on June 18. The black comedy about marriages on the skids was written in 1941, when some critics say Coward was at the height of his powers.
Director David Frank, also APT’s producing artistic director, says it was Coward’s insight into the human condition that made “Blithe Spirit” such a success. The play put a new face on the traditional British drawing room comedy – the result of Coward’s time spent in America.
Asked why he chose “Blithe Spirit” to open the season at APT, Frank doesn’t hesitate. “Because it’s a really funny play and we had a cast made in heaven,” he replied. “That made it an irresistible temptation and we succumbed.”
The story, which takes its title from a line in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To A Skylark,” involves novelist and socialite Charles Condomine (James DeVita), who is in search of material for his next book. He invites the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati (APT vocal and text coach Susan Sweeney) to his house to conduct a séance as a possible source for new material.
However, the séance backfires when Madame Arcati conjures the spirit of Condomine’s annoying, temperamental first wife Elvira (Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s Deborah Staples), who decides to stay. She plagues Condomine, the only person who can see her, and annoys to no end the novelist’s current wife Ruth (Colleen Madden). The denouement is Coward at his wryest, most acidic best.
There is a bit of dry wit in the casting, Franks said. Staples started as an APT intern in 1991, became a company member from 1997 to 2001, then left for Milwaukee just at the time that Madden was emerging as a major actor with APT. Both Staples and Madden have appeared with DeVita, so having the former leading lady return is a lot like what happens in the play, Frank explained.
The production is APT’s second outing with a Coward play. The company performed “Hay Fever” in 2009.
“Blithe Spirit” reflects the fast-paced, tough style of American theater Coward experienced when he was in the states during the 1920s. He applied that style to upper-class British society with great effect, according to Frank.
“When it really takes off the play has a ferociously crackling pace,” he said. “Coward understands the rhythm of speech and he has his own rhetoric. His demands are far narrower than those of the Shakespeare plays we put on, but he has his own distinct voice.”
That voice and its droll humor have made “Blithe Spirit” a perennial success and, for Frank, a delight to direct.
Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” on June 18 opens Up the Hill at American Players Theatre’s outdoor amphitheater. Go to www.americanplayers.org.