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Theatre Review Print

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: Director/Designer John C. McIlwee and a Stellar Cast Make Blithe Spirit Sparkle Like The Hope Diamond

June 7, 2007 - Raleigh, NC:

Thanks to director and set and costume designer extraordinaire John C. McIlwee, the current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presentation of the classic British comedy Blithe Spirit (1941) by Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973) sparkles like the Hope Diamond. McIlwee has assembled a stellar class, and let them polish their performances until they sparkle like the finest gems available at Tiffany’s.

McIlwee’s splendid set, which handsomely recreates the lovely living room of Charles and Ruth Condomines’ home in Kent, combines with his striking array of 1930s fashions and the commendable efforts of lighting designer Curtis Lee Jones, properties mistress Caitlen Smith, and sound designer Brian L. Hunt to recreate this superlative supernatural comedy, which Sir Noël characterized as “An Improbable Farce,” is all its glory.

Eric Carl and Fran Dilts Wescott are unfailingly urbane and wonderfully witty as Charles and Ruth Condomine, an oh-so-sophisticated couple who five years ago embarked on their second marriage with the best of intentions, but lately have been seeing fault lines appear beneath their expensively shod feet. Charles is a mystery writer, whose forthcoming novel The Unseen centers around the machinations of a homicidal medium; and Ruth is a housewife whose domineering ways are beginning to become the proverbial fingernails on Charles’ psychic blackboard.

As research for his book, Charles Condomine invites the outrageously eccentric medium and author Madame Arcati (JoAnne Dickenson) to conduct a séance for himself, his wife, and their friends, the stuffy and openly skeptical Dr. George Bradman (Gregor McElvogue) and his highly impressionable wife, Violet (Jan Morgan), who seems to have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. Although the séance ends in disaster, it results in the materialization of Charles Condomine’s drop-dead gorgeous (pun intended) but hopelessly self-centered, possibly unfaithful, and utterly maddening first wife Elivira (Lynda Clark), who died 10 years ago in the very room in which Madame Arcati conducts her séance.

Only Charles can see and hear the ethereal but trash-talking Elvira; and his responses to her caustic comments about Charles, his increasingly domineering new wife Ruth, their galloping Cockney maid Edith (Hilary Russo), Madame Arcati, and the Bradmans seem like non sequiturs — hysterically funny non sequiturs — to everyone but Charles.
Gregor McElvogue and Jan Morgan put just the right amount of starch in the Bradmans; and Hilary Russo is delightful poor clumsy Edith. Lynda Clark adds a luminous performance as Elvira, virtually floating around the set, giving vent to her character’s inner imp, and cheerfully skewering Charles whenever the opportunity arises. But it is JoAnne Dickenson, who takes the plum comic role as Madame Arcati and makes a tasty pudding out of all the old girl’s tics and twitches. Frequently sounding like Katharine Hepburn after guzzling a shaker of Charles Condomine’s famous dry martinis, and hilariously sniffing the air of the Condomine house for even the faintest hint of ectoplasmic manifestation, Dickenson is a veritable ball of fire, much to the delight of last night’s HSN audience, who expressed their appreciation for this high-octane production of Blithe Spiritwith a fervent standing ovation.

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Blithe Spirit Wednesday-Saturday, June 6-9 and 13-16, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 10 and 17, at 3 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $27.50 per show, except $20 student matinees and seniors’ groups, and $150 season ticket for all six shows. Progress Energy Center Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Note: There will be FREE complimentary beverages and desserts at all intermissions. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/shows.html#bs ]inactive 2/10]. Blithe Spirit: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=2087(Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038363/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/485834/index.html(British Film Institute). Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973): http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=36502(Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002021 (Internet Movie Database). The Noël Coward Society: http://www.noelcoward.net/ [inactive 5/09]. Noël Coward 101 (compiled by John Kenrick): http://www.musicals101.com/noel.htm.