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Blithe Spirit Glides, Soars

Circle Theatre’s staging of Blithe Spirit summons its creator’s imagination, wit, and humanity.

/Circle Theatre

Fifty years ago, when Noël Coward died, he took with him a world. It was a glittering, sparkling world -- a world of finely-cut suits, tasteful jewelry, and witty banter. A fantasy, in other words. What kept it from becoming stifling was his opening a window which permitted the flowing of sex and an antic, madcap humor.

His Blithe Spirit, which premiered in 1941, gave us all that (and ghosts). As it begins, Charles Condomine (Michael Coon) and his wife, Ruth (Chelsea Pummill), are preparing for a séance. Neither are believers. Charles, a writer, is hoping to absorb the experience in order to write about it while Ruth thinks the whole thing’s a gas.

Soon (soonish, anyway), they’re joined by Dr. George Bradman (Mark Baker), his wife, Mrs. Bradman (Lorna Torres), skeptics both, and by Madame Arcati (Sandy Kirchinger). Arcati is a spiritualist. She’s also pretty clearly bonkers. Kirchinger’s performance, while broad, isn’t one note. Yes, she’s woo-woo, but she’s also pedantic and slightly quick to take offense. After dinner, she leads the group in an attempt to contact the dead, an attempt that succeeds.

Elvira (Jessie Congleton), Charles’ first wife, has returned, but only he can see or hear her. As you would imagine, the sudden reintroduction of his late wife into Charles’ life causes complications. In a great scene, he finds himself speaking to Ruth and Elvira at the same time. Ruth, unable to hear Elvira, assumes his shocking responses are directed to her.

Elvira’s a terrific character. She’s flirtatious, moody, and amoral. Congleton leans into the role, grinning wolfishly and practically dripping off the couch she lies on. Haven’t we tired of typical ghosts? How often can we watch the widowed wife of a sailor pace back and forth on a balcony? Or listen as a sad, murdered child picks out notes on a piano? Elvira, bold and brassy, is as refreshing as an oasis.

Just as good is Pummill in the role of Wife #2. Sophisticated and worldly, Ruth comes across as someone who would do her best to be kind to her husband’s first wife if only she were alive. Dead’s a different story. Pummill transitions marvelously from sanguine to at the end of her rope, never setting one foot wrong.

For all its effervescence, Blithe Spirit isn’t a perfect play. At two and a half hours, it’s longer than it needs to be, and the Bradmans (while serving a narrative function) tend to fade into the background. Still, it’s a blast. Coward makes full use of his premise, ratcheting up the humor and tension until you think there’s no way it all can get resolved, and then it does. Unlike Elvira, Blithe Spirit hasn’t died. But, just like she is, it’s a pleasure to watch.

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