Blithe Spirit doesn't mean anything. It's not a critique of upper-class society or an evocative exploration of the border between the living and the dead, despite all the ghostly goings-on. Even though Noel Coward wrote the play in 1941, when the bombs were dropping on London, there are no socio-political ramifications here, nor do the characters reveal unexpected emotional depths. Coward, a very blithe spirit himself, had a catchphrase he used over and over again in his autobiography: "merry as a grig." I looked it up, and discovered that a grig is a small darting fish. If you think about it, that simile fits Coward's personality far better than "happy as a clam," which implies a damp, fixed clinginess, or "joyous as a lark," with its echo of things glorious and ineffable. And so Blithe Spirit is merry as a grig, though the merriment is elegant and brilliantly verbal.
Charles Condomine is a writer married to stern and punctilious Ruth. At the play's opening, they're discussing the local psychic, Madame Arcati, whom Charles has invited to the house in the spirit of purest mockery and as part of his research for a novel. The couple is also entertaining two other guests, Dr. Charles Bradman and his wife, Violet. Madame Arcati arrives and proves just as dotty as Charles expected. She soon has everyone seated around a table while she creates all the usual seance tricks: table-tapping, trances, and the summoning up of a sulky child medium called Daphne. Unfortunately for Charles, however, Arcati is the real thing, despite all her dottiness. The French doors fly open on a great gust of wind, and the pale ghost of Charles's first wife, Elvira, appears in the room — a ghost only he can see. Elvira's a sexy, willful little minx, and it takes her no time at all to turn Charles's placid life upside down and enrage and bewilder poor Ruth — who, of course, doesn't know she's there.
For a while, Charles enjoys having Elvira around. His first wife always had "a great talent for living," he tells Ruth. The audience enjoys her, too, because she also has a talent for hysterically funny pranks. But pretty soon Charles encounters her sulks and selfishness and remembers all the reasons he soured on her in the first place. Worse, it turns out that Elvira's not just mischievous, she's evil: She plans to be reunited with him forever, and that means he has to die. Charles and Ruth — by now a believer — agree that an exorcism is needed, but Madame Arcati, hastily recalled to the house, has no idea how to perform one.
Blithe SpiritPresented by the Arvada Center through February 17, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org.
This Arvada Center production, directed by Rod A. Lansberry, provides many pleasures, not least of them Brian Mallgrave's set, which is elegant and impeccable to the last detail, and Chris Campbell's stunning costumes. The cast, too, is well-chosen. Kate Berry is a forceful Ruth, and Heather Lacy glides about gracefully as Elvira. There's a running joke about the maid, Edith: Supposedly she races everywhere, slowing down comically and self-consciously when Ruth rebukes her, but Boni McIntyre, who plays the role, seems to forget the joke except when it's actually mentioned. Leslie O'Carroll took over the pivotal role of Madame Arcati only six days before opening, and on the night I attended, she didn't have the authority and solidity the part requires, though she did have some very funny bits. By now this terrific actor is probably riding the part as crazily and confidently as Madame Arcati rides her bicycle. And Steven Cole Hughes plays Charles with energy, smoothness and skill that keep the action skimming along.
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Charles doesn't actually give a damn about either of his two wives, showing no grief for his losses or joy at his reunions, only mild irritation when his routines are disrupted. I'm guessing Coward, who was known to be gay, wouldn't have gone much for either woman, though he might have cast an admiring eye over Elvira's figure and respected Ruth's strength. "I've been hag-ridden all my life," Charles observes just before the play's anarchic ending. It's an ending I won't give away here — though I will tell you it leaves Charles merry as a grig.