Arlington — Move over, Jane Austen, and make room on the settee for Elizabeth von Arnim, whose 1922 novel, in a Tony-nominated 2003 stage adaptation by Matthew Barber, is the source for Theatre Arlington’s wry, poetic, and very funny Enchanted April. Trust us, Jane, you’d enjoy having a chat with this “Lizzie”: one tart, sharp-eyed observer of the human comedy to another.
Australian-born von Arnim was a very popular novelist of the early 20th century, and in some ways took on a tougher slice of the pie than Austen: the long and winding road of marriage. Courtship—Austen’s territory—is challenging enough, but “what comes after” is where so much more of life is played out.
And searching for a satisfying “after” is where we find the four women of Enchanted April. They are complete strangers, lured by a newspaper advertisement offering the one-month April rental of an Italian castle “to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.” Looking out the windows onto late-winter London, soaked in rain, it’s a siren song that can’t be resisted. Lotty (Sara Ragsdale) feels mousy and undervalued in her marriage to an ambitious attorney. Rose (Lindsay Hayward) is estranged from a husband she once loved deeply. Mrs. Graves (Judy Keith) is widowed and alone, living only through her memories. And Lady Caroline (Staci Cook-Ingram) is desperately tired of the “grabbers”—the men drawn to her beauty and “modern” manners.
A month in Italy at the aptly named San Salvatore could be just what they need—their salvation, a private slice of heaven they can have right now. A place to be, as Lotty says, “translated.” Into someone new? Perhaps not; perhaps the transformation will be in finding themselves again, in deciding, on their own terms, who they truly are—instead of playing the roles men and marriages have assigned them.
If that sounds too serious for fun, worry not: von Arnim’s story and dialogue are probing, but there’s plenty of wit and comedy in the air. Husbands are deceived and deceiving, servants are sassy—in two languages—and rom-com complications ensue. (The younger women are constantly mistaken for war widows, leading to some awkward and funny moments.) It’s a play that’s dense with words, but director Melanie A. Mason ably keeps plot lines clear and characters moving.
Playwright Barber gives Lotty the opening and closing lines of the play, addressed directly to the audience. It’s an effective gambit that spotlights Lotty’s role as the emotional heart of the play. She seems ditzy and timid at first, but swiftly reveals unexpected layers: Lotty “sees” Rose and herself at the castle, “sees” inside Lady Caroline’s carefully guarded heart—indeed, even “sees” the long-dead poet Keats walking a London street near his long-ago home. Lotty’s flatly stated “I see it” becomes the engine that moves everyone forward, and lands them on a flower-draped terrace high above the sea. (Nice work from set designer Tony Curtis and scenic artist Roxanne Mather, with smashingly period costuming by Ryan Matthieu Smith.)
While husbands and lovers are often on their minds, it’s interesting how much of the play is really about friendships among women, and again, Lotty is the force behind them all: she becomes Rose’s sister, Mrs. Graves affectionate daughter, Lady Caroline’s truth-telling mirror. Ragsdale is sweetly wise as Lotty, giving us the full measure of her impulsive warmth and strangely visionary take on life. Hayward’s Rose is rigid and miserable in her early scenes, but thaws into warmth and loveliness. Keith’s Lady Bracknell-ish turn as the dowager Mrs. Graves is formidable. Her “translation” back into life is marked by the smallest of smiles—but we see and rejoice in the change. And as Caroline, Cook-Ingram beautifully portrays the secret soul of the brittle, man-weary socialite.
A small servant’s role has expanded into the comic character of Costanza (Elizabeth Webb), a stereotypically trash-talking servant who has a lot to say (in Texas-accented Italian) about the foibles of the ladies. Webb does her best in the part, and the audience on opening night loved her—but the role has a broad-comedy tone that stands out from the rest of von Arnim’s tale. Clearly, though, this was adapter Barber’s choice.
Eventually the husbands (William Kledas and Michael Prescott) are invited to join the party, and the English owner of the castle (Travis Cook)—who has a mad crush on Rose—unexpectedly arrives for a visit. Kledas is overbearing and droll as Lotty’s husband Mellersh (Mellersh?), who learns his little woman is bigger than she seems. As Rose’s worldly but unhappy husband Frederick, Prescott strikes genuine sparks with Hayward as they try to put the pieces of their marriage back together. And playing the castle’s owner, a lonely English artist and WWI vet, Cook shows us how drawn he is not only to his “Madonna” Rose, but to the “sisters” and “grandmothers” represented by the other ladies. He’s aching for love, and it’s a cinch he’ll wind up with someone at play’s end.
Enchanted April, best-known today from the 1992 film version directed by Mike Newell, was von Arnim’s 14th book (from a total of 21 published between 1898 and 1940). It is, deliciously, a comedy written by a woman with a lifetime of bittersweet experience under her hat, and with plenty to say about the lives women live at every part of their journey. She’s smart, sharp and lovely, so here’s a question for America’s young playwrights: what “lost gems” might be found in some of von Arnim’s other stories—just waiting for their moment in the spotlight?