‘Blithe Spirit’ is ghostly fun

By Adrian McCoy / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dan Rodden and Vera Varlamov in Blithe Spirit at PICT Classic Theatre. Photo by Larry Roberts, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dan Rodden and Vera Varlamov in Blithe Spirit at PICT Classic Theatre. Photo by Larry Roberts, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Noel Coward wrote his classic supernatural comedy “Blithe Spirit” in 1941 under the looming shadow of World War II. With a mission to write something to lift the spirits of a war-weary England, he penned a story that let audiences laugh in the face of death.

As the play’s lead ghost character puts it, “Not dead, Charles — passed over. It’s considered vulgar to say ‘dead’ where I come from.”

PICT Classic Theatre — formerly known as Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre — opens its 2014 season with a revival of this venerable comedy classic.

The action unfolds in the living room of Charles and Ruth, a couple who are fluent in witty repartee and have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for dry martinis. They invite another couple — Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, along with a medium named Madame Arcati — to dinner. Novelist Charles has an ulterior motive: He’s researching his next mystery and wants to see a medium in action so he can create an authentic character.

They suspect that Madame Arcati’s a charlatan, but they end up with a real problem after the evening’s seance — the ghost of Charles’ late wife, Elvira, who’s all too happy to move back into her earthly home, upending the couple’s life and marriage. As the action unfolds, the characters’ veneers are stripped away in a wickedly sharp satire.

Director Alan Stanford and the cast successfully mine the play’s elements of farce and black humor, turning Coward’s witty dialogue into verbal fencing matches that are fun to watch.

This production weighs in at 2½ Alena Konstantinova hours. There are times when it would be good to pick up the pace — not to placate the contemporary audience’s ever-shortening attention span, but for the sake of keeping the comic momentum going.

“Blithe Spirit” has a wealth of rich comedic roles for women. Mary Rawson hits the right notes with all of Madame Arcati’s quirks and eccentricities. Daina Michelle Griffith’s Ruth rides a roller coaster of shifting emotions — from cool reserve to hysteria and everything in between. Vera Varlamov gives Elvira a cool, other worldly appeal and at the same time captures her vivacious and mischievous personality. Her hairstyle and white gown conjure the spirit of Marilyn Monroe.

In his debut performance with PICT, Dan Rodden as Charles transforms from unflappable sophisticate to a disoriented and rattled husband nagged by two wives.

Lissa Brennan and James FitzGerald provide good comic support as the Bradmans, and Karen Baum brings a nice touch of physical comedy as the family maid Edith.

An inspired element in the set design is a portrait of Elvira that hangs over the mantel. It changes expression and composition as the scenes progress, making even an inanimate object magical and mysterious.

Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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