PICT’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ Wakes the Ghost of Humor Past

The nights belong to the living dead when Elvira (Vera Varlamov, center) comes back from the grave to wrap her mitts once more around Charles (Dan Rodden) while squeezing out his current squeeze, Ruth (Daina Michelle Griffith).

The nights belong to the living dead when Elvira (Vera Varlamov, center) comes back from the grave to wrap her mitts once more around Charles (Dan Rodden) while squeezing out his current squeeze, Ruth (Daina Michelle Griffith).

If you enjoy plays that evoke the spirits of bygone ages and stages, then PICT Classic Theatre—formerly Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre—is the company for you. Although PICT does some contemporary pieces, it specializes in throwbacks, the many works that either were written or are set in the years before the Internet. The group’s 2014 season (which runs from now through December) will include classics ranging from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

And to kick off the season, PICT is staging another golden oldie: the Noël Coward farce Blithe Spirit. This play is currently having a smash revival in London, where it premiered in 1941. Thrifty theater fans may wish to save the airfare and see it here. The actors are excellent. They snap through Coward’s repartee with vigor and upper-lip precision. They careen spectacularly through the plot twists.

Is the comedy “dated”? In the sense that it reflects the time and setting of its composition, yes. But a period piece like Blithe Spirit offers a special attraction to modern audiences. A production that’s on target can give you a double-barreled reward. Most of the humor still works, with only some topical references lost. Plus, you get a feel for what life and theater were like in a world not far removed from our own. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how we have changed. As well as how we haven’t.

Sex, Death, and Wit

Noël Coward himself was a type who barely exists today. In the period between the World Wars, Coward reigned as the very model of a British high-society wit. He purposely cultivated the image, often being photographed in silk dressing gowns or other dandy apparel, smoking cigarettes in a long ivory holder. He also backed up the image by delivering. From the 1920s onward he churned out plays, songs, and film scripts prodigiously.

Coward wrote Blithe Spirit at a dark time in British history. In May of 1941 the Blitz was reaching its final, appalling peak. Night after night, Nazi bombers poured tons of explosives on cities in England, killing thousands in London alone. Fires blazed and buildings were leveled city-wide.

Wishing to create a lively play that would cheer the folks on the home front, Coward worked fast, finishing Blithe Spirit within a week. The subject matter was a calculated risk. As his biographer Philip Hoare has noted: “It was black comedy taken to new, sophisticated heights, somewhat daringly dwelling with humor on the notion of death in a world in which death was just around the corner.”

More daring still, at least for the time, Blithe Spirit wove explicit threads of sexual passion through its morbid theme. Which leads us to what you can now see at PICT.

Whereas the London revival of ‘Blithe Spirit’ has Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, here Mary Rawson (in the turban) plays theater’s happiest medium with more than ample gusto. The skeptical guests are Mrs. Bradman and her hubby (Lissa Brennan and James FitzGerald).

Whereas the London revival of ‘Blithe Spirit’ has Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, here Mary Rawson (in the turban) plays theater’s happiest medium with more than ample gusto. The skeptical guests are Mrs. Bradman and her hubby (Lissa Brennan and James FitzGerald).

A Loopy Medium and Dueling Wives

The story centers on Charles Condomine (played by Dan Rodden), a wealthy novelist with a taste for exquisite women. His first wife has died young and he is re-married to the smart and sultry Ruth (Daina Michelle Griffith).

Charles wants to gather material for a novel about spiritual fraud, so he invites an eccentric local medium, Madame Arcati (Mary Rawson), to conduct a séance at his home. And though the Condomines and their guests expect quackery, a veritable spirit from the beyond appears—the late woman of the house, the brazen blonde Elvira (Vera Varlamov).

How could this be? Madame Arcati says Charles must have wanted his ex to return, a charge he denies vehemently at first. But Elvira is a determined ghost, every inch as irresistible as she was in the original flesh. She proceeds to inhabit the premises and ensnare Charles while present wife Ruth rages, producing havoc most unexpected.

The Nature of the Laughs

On one level, Blithe Spirit is a traditional comedy of manners—fractured manners, that is. Fun is poked at the condescension of the upper classes and how they lose their cool when things go awry, baring their naked instincts. Dirty laundry is aired to the tune of snarling, waspy witticisms as decorum descends into melee.

Yet in certain ways the play is a singular sort of farce, which may account for its lasting popularity. For one thing, jokes are never inserted merely for the sake of laughs. Lovers of wicked humor from the early 1900s (and before) will not find here, for instance, the endless punning and clowning of Groucho and company, nor the constant acerbic digressions of Oscar Wilde at his dittiest.

Noël Coward wasn’t out to break the record for lampoons per minute. There are some Wilde-ishly clever one-liners, to be sure, such as when Charles observes drily: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” There is furthermore some physical comedy that would do the Marx Brothers proud, much of it from Karen Baum who plays Edith, the Condomines’ too-eager-to-please maid.

Don’t drop the china! In a romp that requires a fine balance, maid Edith (Karen Baum) teeters madly around the edges of the upper-crust bedlam.

Don’t drop the china! In a romp that requires a fine balance, maid Edith (Karen Baum) teeters madly around the edges of the upper-crust bedlam.

Always, however, Coward’s script stays focused on the movement of the story, not on the laugh meter. Outrageous, absurd things happen because they are bound to happen, given the predicament that’s been established.

Various audience members I talked with after the opening-night show had noticed another distinctive touch. Somewhere along the line, the gravity of the play’s predicament seeps through. Many of us are haunted by thoughts of those we once held dear, as Charles is. Many are torn between two loves, and many of us are tormented by jealousy of our rivals—even rivals we thought were long gone—as the raging Ruth is.

Down below the chuckle zone, this stuff hits home. One begins to feel it … and then farcical elements lighten the mood. Farce of this nature demands a delicate balance. When the balance is achieved, it’s a keeper.

Blithe Spirit opened in London in the summer of 1941. By then, Hitler had dialed down the Blitz, turning his forces eastward for their ill-fated attack on the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, four more grim years of war remained. And Blithe Spirit remained a spirit-lifter, delighting London audiences through a maiden run of nearly 2,000 performances.

The PICT production won’t be available for viewing that long. You can see it until May 17.

Closing Credits

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit was directed for PICT by the company’s artistic director, Alan Stanford. Along with the actors mentioned, James FitzGerald and Lissa Brennan play the Condomines’ neighbors, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman. Like the rest of the cast they’re quite right for their parts.

The play is in the Charity Randall Theatre at the foot of the Cathedral of Learning, on Forbes Ave. in Oakland. For show dates, times and tickets, visit PICT or call 412-561-6000.

Photos by Suellen Fitzsimmons courtesy of PICT Classic Theatre.

Mike Vargo is a freelance writer and editor based in Pittsburgh.