During his lifetime Noel Coward fought a reputation as a lightweight, and his work can indeed be frivolous. His reputation has been secured by “Private Lives” and other works now recognized as masterpieces.
“Blithe Spirit,” now being presented at GulfShore Playhouse, is not top-quality Coward, though it is consistently amusing. It has a winning concept — a novelist, Charles Condomine, haunted by his ex-wife, Elvira, with the present wife in attendance. The character of Elvira presents an opportunity for a charming actress to shine, and Madame Arcati, the medium who conjures Elvira, is a wonderful role.
It is a sure sign of the taste and insight of Kristen Coury, who again directs, that the character of Ruth, the earthbound second wife, is as well conceived and played as it is. Coward said that Ruth was one of his most difficult characters to cast and play properly. She must be practical and commonsense, a foil to Elvira, but still cannot be unsympathetic. Often Ruth is played as dull and matronly. Beth Hyton is lovely and appealing. One can see she is a match for Charles and perhaps even for Elvira, and what Charles sees in her.
The rest of the cast is splendid. Caroline Hewitt conveys an otherworldly quality, not by waiving her arms about, but by gliding about the stage. She is a beautiful and mischievous Elvira, and looks and acts in a way appropriate to the 1940’s setting of the play. Her costume is elegant with just the right touch of the spirit world. Elizabeth Dimon plays Madame Arcati is a rather earthy manner and it works. This is, I believe, my fifth Madame Arcati, including the estimable Angela Lansbury and the legendary Bea Lillie, not to mention a practical Margaret Rutherford in the film. Ms. Dimon once again proves that with a talented comedienne this role can be played in any number of ways and still be funny.
The center of the play is the author Charles Condomine. He is the Coward stand-in, intended as charming, acerbic, able to throw off the Coward dialogue with aplomb. These qualities are important, because not all the mots in “Blilthe Spirit” are Coward’s best. They often, because of the tone and the rhythm, sound funnier than they turn out to be on closer examination. They sound clever, which is often nearly as good as being clever. Cody Nickell is a good actor who is amusing as Charles. However, he lacks the arrogance and debonair quality one would hope for in a Coward hero.
In all, though, this is another production that this fine group can be proud of and worth seeing.