Nestled in the aromatic forests of Woodstock, in a theater which even the skeptic would agree evinces the possibility of ghosts with only the slightest effort of imagination, the Voice Theater and Director Shauna Kanter bring an engaging set of living and recently passed characters to the stage in their production of Blithe Spirit. Written in 1941 by Noel Coward, the play opens to an engaging couple, Charles and Ruth Condomine, each married for the second time. Played by Joris Stuyck and Molly O’Brien respectively, they who are preparing to entertain friends, and, mot notably, a local medium, in an effort to research the “methods” (they assume, actually, the “tricks”) of that profession, in appearing to conjure spirits of the dearly departed. The dinner party has been arranged by Charles, a writer by trade, as part of his research for an upcoming book. The medium, Madame Arcati, played by Leigh Strimbeck, arrives with a flourish, suitably eclectic an interesting from the start, and advises, among other things, that the efforts of the séance may not work, in fact, apparently they rarely do; there must be someone in the house who has the psychic ability to “call” the spirit into the home. One never knows, apparently, if the folks involved have the right ectoplasmic aptitude. The Condomines, Madame Arcati, and their friends, Doctor and Mrs. Bradman, settle in for the exciting effort, and we’re off. By this time, we have also met the frazzled, heavy-footed, Edith, the live-in housekeeper who may, or may not, be overworked – but certainly looks to be.
The set is immediately appealing, and must be commended. The use of the theater’s atypical stage space is outstanding. Set designer Julianna von Haubrich has worked with it such that it actually enhances the sense of a real parlor in a functional home; there is nothing “set-like” about it, in fact.
O’Brien, as Ruth, is a marvelous actor, in complete control of the stage and the audience from the first moment. Whether engaged in the idle conversation of husband and wife, the more biting sarcasm of a couple testing each other’s will, or the frustration of a spouse at her wits’ end, Ms. O’Brien is entirely believable and utterly effective. It is a credit to Stuyck’s craft that in his hands, the charm and wit of Charles leave us endeared to him even when the situation he seeks to have blessed by both his living and dead spouses is clearly untenable. When on stage together, O’Brien and Stuyck show us a couple with a back-story and a real relationship. Alone, they each command attention.
That “situation,” to be precise, is the appearance, and determined lingering, of Charles’ first wife, Elvira, played by Megan Bones, as a result of the first séance’s unexpected success. In Bones’ hands, Elvira is a scene-stealing apparition reminiscent of Jane Fonda’s iconic Barbarella. Clearly a bit too much to handle when she was living, she is much more than Charles can manage when dead. And, despite his best efforts, no “middle-ground” can be reached between his first and second wife. Indeed, the ghostly Elvira has plans to regain her now re-married spouse’s undivided attention, which will not, as any seasoned audience member will assume, go quite as intended. Ms. Bones is as alluring and “blithe” as could have been imagined by the playwright, and her performance is a joy to watch.
Ms. Strimbeck gives us a robust and eccentric Arcati; equal parts legitimate shaman and fellow seeker of truth. She invests the character with the confidence of someone who knows what she believes because she’s seen it with her own eyes, and still glories in what she has yet to encounter. In a relatively “light” play, a very talented actor gives us a very three-dimensional character.
Caitlin Connelly, as the beleaguered Edith, is wonderfully played. The highest compliment to be paid to her performance is that one feels it is perhaps a flaw in the revered Coward’s script that we don’t see Edith more often. That sense might not be so keenly felt if Edith were in the hands of an actor less capable than Connelly.
Dr. Bradman is perfectly and pleasantly agnostic in the face of all the other-worldly goings-on as played by John Remington. His skepticism is very appealingly balanced by the performance of Angela Buesing Potrikus as his wife Violet Bradman; a woman with the erstwhile enthusiasm of someone without the right eye to see the other dimension, but entirely willing to believe in it. Both Remington and Buesing Potrikus are strong counters to O’Brien and Stuyck, a notable accomplishment in the limited space within which Coward gives their characters to work.
To say more would be to give some delightful twists away. Suffice it to say that in the two weeks remaining in this show’s run, Hudson Valley theater goers would do well to support this production. It is a well-directed, very strongly acted presentation of an entertaining play, seen in a beautiful Hudson Valley setting. Tickets are available at and the show runs through July 28. Tickets are available online at voicetheatre.brownpapertickets.com., and advance purchase is encouraged.
— Joe Eriole, Hudson Valley Ovation, 07/2019, review of Blithe Spirit at Byrdcliffe Theater, written by Noël Coward and directed by Shauna Kanter.