WHITEFISH – Cue Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” It’s the 1940s, and a maid enters the vintage pink British upper-crust living room. Edith is a slight, skittery thing, who can’t decide if she should run, walk silly, or march to perform her duties. She rattles off “Yes, Ma’am” with so little sincerity that you know she has mischief in her head.
Portrayed by Katie Nixon, Edith is just one of the eccentrics in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” currently performed by Whitefish Theatre Company at the O’Shaughnessy Center. The community theater typically kicks off its season with a classic – this year, a lighthearted romp of a comedy. For the audience, it’s good laughs. For the troupe, the play requires attention to detail in costumes, accents, and mannerisms to transport Montanans to Britain.
Written by Noel Coward in 1941, “Blithe Spirit” sought to alleviate the stress felt during World War II. “He wanted something light, frothy, and uplifting,” notes Director Nancy Nei. After running for 1,997 consecutive performances in London’s West End, the witty smash held the box office record for three decades.
Launching the season with “Blithe Spirit” seemed a no-brainer for Nei. “Like most community theaters, we have lots of women,” she says. Coward’s play not only drafts five women and two men, but built real female roles. “It’s got character roles for women opposed to leading ladies and ingénues,” says Nei. “Besides, men are off hunting.”
The play’s illusion starts with tricky 1940s costuming. “It’s hardest to dress the men because suits are subtly different,” explains Nei. “Women’s fashions change so often that you can find a recent dress with a ‘40s style.”
The comedy sets a ghost upon Charles Condomine (acted by Jim Mohn). The ghost – his alluring first wife (Michele Keener) – trolls through the house casting barbs of sarcasm at his second wife Ruth (Sarina Hart). Only Condomine can see his first wife; thus, he appears to the other characters as drunk. Eccentricity floats like a buoy in the characters of the maid and an odd dotty psychic (Gail Cleveland), while the staid Condomine couple copes with the chaos English-style. “The actors had to learn the ability to cover one’s emotion and make light of disaster,” Nei notes. “They had to learn the stiff upper lip.”
To complete the illusion of British leisure class sensibilities, the actors – all experienced in community theater – adopted English diction and manner of sitting and gesturing. “Coward is a stretch because of the style and accent,” says Nei. With assistance from English-born Elspeth Chambers, who plays the formal Mrs. Bradman, the actors transformed their Americanese to British accents, pronouncing “rather” as “rah-ther” and “grand” as “grahnd.”
Ghosts, of course, require ghostly goings on. Cue the technical crew. “It’s smoke and mirrors,” explains set builder Fred Warf. The finale hinges on a surprise performance from the stage crew. “It’s a matter of timing,” says stage manager Kellie Hoffman. “It’s all tricks of the trade stuff.” Tricks and ghosts, Coward is a frothy way to launch the Whitefish theater season.
If you missed “Blithe Spirit” opening weekend, you can still catch one of three performances on Oct. 26, 27, and 28. Call 862-5371 for tickets. Check www.whitefishtheatreco.org for 2007-08 season schedule.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.