Directed by Evan Jackson
Presented by Idle Muse Theatre Company
Playing at Rivendell Theatre
The English vogue for all things Italian had reached an apogee as early as the 1820s and thereafter steeply declined following the deaths of the poets Lord Byron and P.B. Shelley, both of whom came to artistic maturity among Italy’s many exotic locales. But the effects of this frenzied flirtation have been longstanding, as no doubt attested to by the sustained popularity of Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel, The Enchanted April.
Arnim’s novel—which tells of the rejuvenating effects of an Italian sojourn on four Interwar Englishwomen—has been adapted five times, including a successful 1992 film by Mike Newell and an equally well-received 2003 Broadway adaptation by playwright Matthew Barber (notably, in his first theatrical effort). It is the latter currently being staged at Rivendell Theatre, under the direction of Idle Music Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Evan Jackson, in a production that ultimately succeeds in winning us over with its many idyllic charms.
Idle Muse ensemble member Elizabeth MacDougald leads the cast as Charlotte (Lottie) Wilton, an unhappy hausfrau who achingly longs for the kind of ‘wisteria and sunshine’ nowhere to be found in England of the post-WWI era. Not that we can blame her. Set designer Dennis Mae’s opening utilitarian edifices of plain mahogany walls are stripped of any color or image, evoking the drab iconoclasm of English Puritanism. It’s dimly lit tones of ‘blah’ and ‘meh’ are more than enough to make anyone take to brighter Mediterranean shores, and that’s just what little Lottie opts to do, purposely leaving behind her solicitor husband, Mellersh (Joel Thompson).
For in his stead, Lottie acquires three unlikely roommates to split the costs of renting out the Italian castle of San Salvatore for the month of April. The first is Mrs. Rose Arnott (Mara Kovacevic). Rose’s husband Frederick (Brian Bengston) is a hack writer of salacious fiction. And though Rose may say she disapproves, at some level even she understands that her faux-outrage is just the compulsory moral indignation of an increasingly irrelevant Victorian mindset. Determined to liberate herself of this needless baggage, she accompanies Lottie on her trip to San Salvatore.
Joining Lottie and Rose are Lady Caroline Bramble (Catherine Hermes)—a rich Bright Young Thing looking to escape the cloying advances of the male sex—and Mrs. Clayton Graves (Maggie Speer)—a grande dame and former acquaintance of Carlyle, Tennyson, and other Victorian luminaries, who longs for little more than to sit alone and brood over the distant past. But a trip to San Salvatore is all about opening yourself up to the unexpected…
For example, smokers and non-smokers alike might consider staying in their seats during intermission, if only for the chance to watch Dennis Mae’s set virtually metamorphose from Act I’s austere finishings into the genuinely impressive outer courtyard of San Salvatore, itself bursting with dappled, impressionistic bits of color from one end to the next. Note the way your own spine straightens in your seat. The way your eyes widen in order to take in the color and the light. Should you feel yourself even the slightest bit more awake—more lucid—then San Salvatore has worked its magic on you, too.
Enchanted April’s second act charts the gradual opening of its four fair ladies into possibility, hope, and forgiveness. Mellersh and Frederick each make an appearance at their wives’ bedsides, and the proprietor of San Salvatore, Antony Wilding (Nathan Thompson) also joins the party. The result is the sort of frenzied, fevered springtime escapade of any Shakespearean comedy. As the wisteria and hydrangeas of San Salvatore blossom, so too does the inward life of the soul. The metaphor is as apt as it is sentimental.
But of course, Enchanted April was always meant as something of a ‘sentimental’ story, and people shouldn’t expect anything less from director Evan Jackson’s otherwise euphonically enchanting production. Elizabeth MacDougald and Mara Kovacevic as Lottie and Rose are infinitely likable with MacDougald’s infectious energies feeding well into Kovacevic’s wholly plausible (and genuinely moving) emotional opening into faith and hope. Maggie Speer injects some much-needed comedic relief into the play, combing Mrs. Graves stuffy Britishisms for all they’re worth. And the beautiful Catherine Hermes reminded me of a young Parker Posey (circa House of Yes), infusing Lady Caroline’s evident stylishness with a sense of manic desperation.
The deliberate and pointed contrast being made between the first and second acts results in something of a slowly plodded and (at times) underwhelming first act. Be advised, those unfamiliar with Enchanted April may have to be forcibly cajoled to stick it out. But rest assured, the second act more than amply compensates, so slowly catching you off guard that you have hardly time to realize the extent of your involvement in its story and in the lives of its characters.
So sure, the contemporary English may have fewer illusions about Italy than Byron or even von Arnim had. But if Enchanted April teaches us anything, its that even our most idyllic of illusions occasionally open themselves up into truth. After all, wisteria and sunshine never go out of season.
Reviewed by Anthony Mangini
Reviewed Sunday, August 11th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
Enchanted April runs until September 8th, 2013. Rivendell Theatre is located at 5775 N. Ridge Avenue. For more information and reviews, visit their Theatre In Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/enchanted-april/6469/.