By David Templeton
'Sometimes, one has to step back a bit."
This ambiguous tidbit of advice appears twice--each time with a different meaning--in Matthew Barber's literate and poetic adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's classic romantic novel Enchanted April, currently brightening moods and banishing pessimism at Petaluma's tiny but mighty Cinnabar Theater. In director Elizabeth Craven's graceful, sure-footed production, the "step back a bit" line is first delivered literally, as advice on how to best appreciate modern art.
When it's stated again, the line--and everything else in this delightful surprise party of a show--has changed, and the advice applies not to art but, metaphorically, to life: sometimes, one has to step back a bit, take a break, take a vacation from everything you know and have grown weary of in order to appreciate the people we love and to rediscover the people we once were and have forgotten that we are.
"My mind is like a hummingbird. You seldom see it land," Lotty Wilton admits brightly, in the opening moments of the play. It's an apt enough description. Like a hummingbird in a cage, Lotty (a luminous Molly Noble) feels trapped, unappreciated and desperate for a change. It is 1922, shortly after WW I has ended, and England is a country full of widows and divided priorities.
Lotty is married to Melersh (a pitch-perfect Dodds Delzell), a distracted, stiffly proper lawyer who possibly once loved her, but now acts as if his wife were nothing more than an accessory to be used in expanding his business prospects. Early on, when she timidly objects to accompanying him to a social engagement, Melersh curtly informs her, "It's not so important that you enjoy yourself, but simply that you are there." Throughout the first act, a window stands center stage, battered by a constant torrent of very real rain. It stands as a potent symbol of Lotty's existential crisis, as she dreams aloud of escaping to a place full of "wisteria and sunshine."
When she happens upon a newspaper advertisement describing a castle in Italy, available for rent during the month of April, Lotty, with her hummingbird mind, cannot let go of the notion of a month in Italy without Melersh. By chance, she meets Rose Arnott (a dependably excellent Danielle Cain), an emotionally brittle young woman who has retreated into scripture and prayer after a mysterious tragedy. Her imaginative husband, Frederick (Nick Sholley, also excellent), has recently achieved success, under an anonymous name, as the author of scandalous romances, and his attempts to rekindle their cooling marriage are as uncomfortable to Rose as are his novels. "One should not write books God would not want to read," she scolds him.
With charming enthusiasm and some slightly nutty talk of "seeing" the two of them together in the castle, "without husbands," Lotty eventually persuades Rose to join her for a month-long sojourn in the sun. To share expenses, they run their own ad and take on two roommates, also women with powerful hankerings to escape from London, rain and men. Lady Caroline Bramble (Laura Lowry) is a sexy society princess eager for some time away from the predatory males with whom she regularly mingles; Mrs. Graves (Carol Mayo-Jenkins) is a severe, elderly curmudgeon who thinks little of everyone but herself and Tennyson, and who clearly disapproves of just about everything. That this odd quartet will all experience profound personal transformation in Italy is obvious; watching it happen is the play's chief delight.
Adding to the castle's power are its colorfully arch housekeeper Costanza (Elly Lichenstein in a superbly funny performance) and the castle's fetchingly offbeat owner, Antony Wilding, played by Tim Kniffin with a blend of aching sweetness mixed with dashing confidence. Believing the women to be war widows, Wilding is clearly smitten with Rose, a circumstance that becomes complicated with the unexpected arrival of the abandoned husbands.
While threatening to turn into some sort of elaborate bedroom farce, Enchanted April maintains its high spirits without resorting to the usual low-browed hijinks (with the happy exception of a towel-clad Delzell staging a hilarious nearly nude meltdown after an unfortunate bathtub malfunction). In the end, Enchanted April more than lives up to its name; this tremendously satisfying production, with its beautifully written script, magnificent cast and first-rate direction, is nothing short of enchanting.
'Enchanted April' runs through June 16. June 1–2, 8–9 and 14–15 at 8pm; June 3 and 10 at 2pm. Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $20–$22. 707.763.8920.
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