Updated: Jun 20, 2020
“Worse than jokes in the morning did she hate the idea of a husband.” — Elizabeth von Arnim
Long before Julia Roberts and James Franco’s film, “Eat Pray Love,” there was “The Enchanted April,” Elizabeth von Arnim's best-selling 1922 novel about four frustrated Hampstead women who set off on a journey of self-discovery to Italy.
Together under the Mediterranean sun, the four women clash—and then begin to bond and bloom—until men once again upset the balance.
The English vogue for all things Italian had reached a pinnacle in the early 1800’s, thanks to poets Lord Byron and Shelley, and although that novelty had declined some by the 1900’s, von Armin’s effects of this frenzied, popular flirtation with the rejuvenating effects of Italian sojourns was validated, and made travelling to Portofino without husbands a hot tourist trend.
Von Arnim’s novel has been adapted five times, including a successful 1992 film by Mike Newell and an equally well-received, 2003 Broadway adaptation by playwright Matthew Barber (notably, in his first theatrical effort, in which the title was shortened to “Enchanted April”) and starred Tony Nominated Jayne Atkinson (“The Rainmaker”), “Pretty in Pink” Molly Ringwald and Tony Award winner Elizabeth Ashley (“Take Her, She’s Mine”).
It is the latter that is currently being staged at Newport Theatre Arts Center in an altogether charming incarnation, running for two more weekends at the 90-seat playhouse, under the guide of returning Director Robert Fetes (“The Amorous Ambassador,” “Witness for the Prosecution”). Barber’s adaptation may not be particularly subtle or graceful, but it does succeed in winning us over fully with its many idyllic charms and sentimental pleasures. The show is delivered with a witty feminist twist by Director Fetes along with an outstanding cast.
Brenda Kenworthy leads the cast as Lottie Wilton, a mousy British housewife feeling lost in the shadows of marriage and achingly longing for the kind of ‘wisteria and sunshine’ nowhere to be found in England in the post-WWI era. The source of the very genuine Lottie's unhappiness is immediately made clear: She is infantalized by her solicitor husband Mellersh (Tim Hume). Her subversive impulses are ignited while reading the Agony Column in the Times one rainy day, as she stumbles upon a discreet little ad describing an Italian villa available for let by the month. She decides on a whim to use the nest egg she's shrewdly saved up to do so —
Not that we can blame her. Set designer Andrew Otero’s opening utilitarian (in stark contrast to his Act 2 trappings) edifices of plain brown furniture evoking the drab iconoclasm of English Puritanism amid dimly lit tones of ‘blah’ and ‘meh’ are more than enough to make anyone take to brighter Mediterranean shores. And that’s just what spirited Lottie opts to do, purposely leaving behind her domineering husband, Mellersh.
For in his stead, Lottie acquires three unlikely roommates to split the costs of renting out the small, medieval Italian castle of San Salvatore for the month of April. The first is the highly religious Rose Arnott (Carrie Vinikow), who does extensive charity work. Rose’s husband Frederick (Eldon Callaway) is a hack writer of salacious fiction, and neglects her. And though Rose may say she disapproves, at some level even she understands that her faux-outrage is just the compulsory moral indignation of an increasingly irrelevant Victorian mindset. But Rose’s sadness is much more complex in origin, and is slowly revealed – for starters, she finds her husband's source of income morally repugnant. Balking at first, she is finally determined to liberate herself of this needless baggage for the moment, accompanying Lottie on her trip to San Salvatore for a ladies-only holiday.
Joining Lottie and Rose are Lady Caroline Bramble (Anissa Loer)—a rich, bright young socialite who is tired of the burden of London society and who is beginning to regard her life as shallow and empty, after a man she loved died in WWI— as well as the self-important dowager, Mrs. Clayton Graves (Judy Jones)—a waspish grande dame, crotchety and short-tempered, and former acquaintance of Carlyle, Tennyson, and other Victorian luminaries. Mrs. Graves' only quest in life thus far has been for little more than to sit alone and brood over the distant past. But a trip to San Salvatore is all about opening yourself up to the unexpected…so off she goes with the group.
Once all four arrive at the castle, Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves do not get along. Mrs. Graves also has difficulties with the wily, non-English-speaking servant and cook, Costanza (Andrea Goss Knaub). What finally turns the tide is the appearance of the young, handsome British owner of the castle, Anthony Wilding (Paul Breazeale), hunky but clunky, whose doting on Mrs. Graves immediately softens her rigor. After only a few days, Lotty decides that she and Rose should invite their husbands to join them to experience for themselves the healing nature of the castle.
There are a few un-resolves in the play. When Mr. Arnott arrives, there is some ongoing dalliance with Lady Caroline, but all-too-conveniently forgotten once Mr. Arnott sees his wife. Then, when Mr. Wilton arrives, there is an attempt to pursue some legal business with Lady Caroline, but that too is forgotten. We also never find out what is the mysterious cause of Lady Caroline’s frequent headaches and excessive drinking, except that it’s nothing so terrible that a turn in the garden with Mr. Wilding won’t cure.
As Mellersh and Frederick each make an appearance at their wives’ bedsides, and the proprietor of San Salvatore, Mr. Wilding, also joins the party, the result is the sort of frenzied, fevered springtime escapade of any Shakespearean comedy. It looks as if the wisteria and hydrangeas of San Salvatore have blossomed early.
What mostly peaks our attention with this show are the vibrant performances of the cast. Chief among these is Ms. Kenworthy’s Lotty, whom she plays as a lovable dotty visionary whose sheer enthusiasm can sweep all objections away. Her character shines brightest among the distaff ensemble. Clumsy and tentative in the presence of her disapproving husband, which she can never seem to please, Lotty becomes a veritable sunbeam in act two, radiating joy in her surroundings. Lotty is written with an even level of whimsy and contrivance of her character, described as having a "mind like a hummingbird" and possessing an optimism that "would make Pollyanna ill."
Ms. Vinikow is innovative as Rose, suggesting a secret torment that she can’t bring herself to utter which causes her severe outlook on life. Her sudden turnaround when her husband arrives in Italy comes as a complete surprise.
But Ms. Loer’s Lady Caroline remains mysterious and aloof even after we discover her secret, with an exquisite inner ache beneath the seemingly unflappable flapper. This is primarily because Barber has not totally revealed her character’s motivation. Her sudden change of heart is also unexplained. Barber seems much more interested in Mrs. Graves, brought to vivid life by Ms. Jones, supplying her with signs of more incremental changes in outlook than he gives the others.
The Lighting Designer in the play is Jackson Halphide, Sound Designer is Brian Page, and Costume Design is by Larry Watts. Marty Miller and Tulane Quizon are Property Managers and Michelle Bendetti handles Publicity.
Produced by Rae Cohen and Stage Managed by Matt Koutroulis, Barber's crowd-pleaser serves up the past through a contemporary lens in an accessible style. But “Enchanted April,” a gentle and romantic comedy of manners, was always meant as something of a sentimental story, and people shouldn’t expect anything less from Director Fete’s otherwise euphonically enchanting production—modest but not insubstantial. It’s a jewel of a play that brims with the pleasures of the unexpected.
In fact, “Enchanted April” skirts delightfully close to Mamma Mia! minus the ABBA, but it's pulled off with undeniable polish, catching you so off guard that you have hardly time to realize the extent of your involvement in its story and in the lives of its characters. Playing through Sunday, October 13th, at Newport Theatre Arts Center in Newport Beach, this show will provide your necessary quest for sunshine, wisteria and renewal. Tickets may be purchased at: http://www.ntaconline.com/shows
The Show Report