Soulstice turns to comedy with 'Blithe Spirit'

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Actress Kay Hammond portrayed Elvira in the 1945 Technicolor British film version of “Blithe Spirit,” also starring Rex Harrison and directed by David Lean. - Photo: dvdbeaver.com

What could be funnier than watching the spirit of a departed socialite, mistakenly conjured by a séance gone wrong, torment her re-married husband? Noel Coward found the concept so funny that he wrote the play “Blithe Spirit” – possibly his best-known work – around it.

Soulstice Theatre opens its 2012-13 season on Nov. 2 with the phantasmagorical comedy by the legendary gay author and entertainer.

“I have always loved the show,” says Char Manning, who founded the St. Francis theater company and is directing the Coward play. “Soulstice usually gravitates toward drama, but ‘Blithe Spirit’ has always been on my list. When the chance to put it into the season came, I jumped.”

The premise behind this campy comedy of ill manners is simple. Novelist Charles Condomine (Steve Pfisterer), seeking material for his next book, stages a séance in hopes of generating ideas. He invites the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati (Liz Mistele) to lead the proceedings.

Things don’t quite go as planned, however, and the séance brings back Condomine’s annoying first wife Elvira (Jillian Smith), much to the dismay of his current wife Ruth (Shannon Tyburski). It’s clear that Elvira hasn’t lost her amorous feelings for her spouse, who is the only one who can see her, and that’s something that the button-down Ruth eventually finds intolerable.

Coward’s witty dialogue crackles throughout the play, written in 1941 over a period of just five days while the author was on holiday on the Snowdonia coast in Wales. 

Comedy is notoriously difficult to stage, but Manning is confident that the talents of her cast, the high quality of the writing and her understanding of the material will make “Blithe Spirit” a success. 

“Tempo and timing are the keys to effectively playing comedy,” Manning says. “Noel Coward is brilliant, and if we trust that we’ll be just fine.”

“Blithe Spirit” originally opened in London’s West End, enjoying the longest run of any nonmusical play in British theater up until that time. Coward had by then spent time in New York, and he transported the tougher, faster-paced American style of theater to London’s more genteel stages. This gave the work a fresh quality and added to its popularity.

Coward wrote “Blithe Spirit” at a time during World War II when things were not going well for Britain, and a small protest arose from critics who felt the play made fun of death. However, the entertainment value of the work prevailed – and has endured. The play has been adapted for film, radio and television, and a musical version titled “High Spirits” opened on Broadway in 1964.

Generally considered escapist fair, the play presents themes that might invite reflection, Manning says.

“A part of our mission is to do meaningful theatre,” she says. “It is not always easy to find a comedy that ‘makes meaning,’ but this show has several nuggets. If the audience walks away having some things (to think about) after having spent an evening of laughing and enjoying a night of theatre, I will feel we have been successful.”

On stage

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” runs Nov. 2–17. For tickets and information, go to www.soulsticetheatre.org.