ENCHANTED APRILby Matthew Barber
From the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim
Plaza Theatre Company
Directed by JaceSon Barrus
Assistant Director – Jay Cornils
Set Design – JaceSon Barrus
Lighting Design – JaceSon Barrus
Sound Design – JaceSon Barrus
Costume Design – Tina Barrus
Properties Design – Tammie Phillips
Scenic Painting – Julie Asher Lee
Stacey Greenawalt – Lotty Wilton
Jonathan Metting – Mellersh Wilton
Tina Barrus – Rose Arnott
Jay Lewis – Frederick Arnott
Jennifer Fortson – Caroline Bramble
Michael McMillan – Antony Wilding
Trich Zaitoon – Mrs. Graves
Joann Gracey – Constanza
Photo Credit: Stacey Greenawalt
Reviewed Performance: 4/19/2014
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It seems that relationships in the early 1920s could be as difficult as they are today and Lotty and Rose had relationship issues. Of course, during the twenties, for a woman to be independent was rare, and women’s ability to get away from dysfunctional marriages didn’t exist. That changed for Lotty Wilton when she saw an ad for an Italian castle for rent, a place where wisteria grew in abundance, and so began a story about four women who courageously find their strength and, in the process, find love in ways they couldn’t imagine.
Matthew Barber wrote this stage adaptation of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. A prolific and popular writer of the time, Elizabeth, a pseudonym, was born Mary Beauchamp in 1866 Australia and came of age in Victorian London. She married Count Henning von Arnim-Schlagenthin after meeting him on an Italian holiday and took part of his name for her pseudonym. Beauchamp lived something of this story herself. Barber says he was drawn to the story after he “crumbled completely to the charms of the tale told, the pull of its still relevant emotional undercurrents, and its author’s captivating, stingingly unsentimental voice.”
Enchanted April had that same feel, an understated but engaging story like taking an comfortable holiday. It was a comedy that was easy and safe to laugh at the absurdly common situations.
JaceSon Barrus directed this piece with a cast of players perfect for their roles. Each moment they seemed to genuinely enjoy the story. Every actor embraced Barrus’ vision and the result was an audience that fell in love with the characters.
The set was minimal with only a few furniture pieces to portray the locations. The walls were painted with beautiful pastoral scenes of countryside and ocean-side. Julie Asher Lee got credit for those murals and one could only wish they would last. Barrus is credited for designing the set, sound effects and lighting and it looked unified with his vision, each part carrying the audience into London and an Italian seaside castle, engaging the imaginary senses for a time period just after WWI. Tammie Phillips provided 1920s props and everything seemed real for the era. Costumes were designed by Tina Barrus, and every piece looked like a 1920’s movie reel, although these were in original color as they lit up the stage. From flowery print fabrics to heavy cotton cloaks to men’s tuxedoes, lavish hats, all in a wide array of bright colors, each clothing choice fit the character to a tee.
Tina Barrus also played Rose Arnott opposite Lotty Wilton, played by Stacey Greenawalt. These two were a breath of fresh air, with Barrus giving Rose an air of staid English aristocracy, limited from seeing options for her problems. She played the cynical, disbelieving Rose who reacted with shock at Lotty’s first outbursts, but then showed unscripted little private moments of glee that revealed a growing acceptance of Lotty’s positive outlook. Greenawalt created a Lotty who was like a hummingbird - flighty, ethereal, filled with laughter and possibility. We laughed with her as she carried us on this wonderful flight of fancy. Greenawalt made Lotty an over-the-top positive thinker, joyful, laughing, marveling at the simplest things. But she also showed private moments of doubt and fear with periodic furtive glances.
Lotty is married to Mellersh, a proper English solicitor, played by Jonathan Metting. Their relationship seems stereotypical for English marriages of the day, according to literature, with precious little tenderness and high formality. He called her Mrs. Wilton. Metting made this character a man expecting obedience and servitude from Lotty. He infused Mellersh with English gentlemanly manners - staid, formal, chauvinist, a bit uppity. We also saw how this attitude affected his wife and this explained something of their relationship issues. Mellersh may be affected by Lotty’s magic in time, but Metting fought this transition with resistance and hilarity.
Rose is married to Frederick Arnott, played by Jay Lewis. An author of fame, Frederick has an atypical marriage with Rose, more hurtful for each, almost like both were trapped in a cycle. We saw an undercurrent of something deeper between Fredrick and Rose in Lewis’ subtle subtext, not so much what he said, but rather how he looked at her. Lewis portrayed a man with outward strength, but there was also an air of inner pain.
Lotty and Rose enlist two ladies to escape to Italy and share the castle rent with them. Caroline Bramble, played by Jennifer Fortson, is a young dance sensation, hurt by something we don’t know yet. Fortson created a worldly woman in her looks and quiet acceptance of the others. She craved privacy and yet Fortson hinted at trouble in her life with the tenor of her responses. Caroline is thought a lush by the others, and Fortson reacted with a disappointed, cynical, view in the way a star might publicly accept, but quietly wince, when hearing unfair criticism.
Mrs. Graves is the older lady of the group, a parallel to Mellersh with her proper, high-society, English attitude, prejudiced and negative to everything Lotty and Caroline represent. Trich Zaitoon created a comedic character with the panache and style of the great English dames of theater, and played Graves’ resistance to Lotty’s shenanigans to a high-decibel fever pitch. Graves says things we know are wrong to say, but in her words it’s comical. Zaitoon gave a plethora of laughs through her perfect delivery and timing, and through this we saw Mrs. Graves create some surprising magic of her own.
The Italian castle by the sea is owned by Antony Wilding, played by Michael McMillan. Wilding’s youthful vigor and love of beauty and art allowed McMillan to accentuate his sensual side so that Wilding revealed for us an Italian perspective on the world. Yet Wilding is English. McMillan comfortably melded an Italian love of life with a modern genteel English attitude that made Wilding a perfect host for four ladies searching for themselves. Wilding’s housekeeper, Constanza, was played by Joann Gracey. The housekeeper speaks only Italian and is a mixture of old-world Italian and a touch of motherly wisdom. She is the foil to Mrs. Graves and Gracey and Zaitoon spar in a delightful battle of wits and style, which kept the audience laughing.
There are many notable situations in Enchanted April, but one particularly stood out for me. A point comes when Lotty and Rose inform their husbands of their plan to spend a month away. Lotty confronts Mellersh in one corner of the stage and Rose confronts Frederick in another, at the same time with lines overlapping, the two couples carrying on separate but parallel conversations. It was a precious piece of directing and acting, both hilarious in its timing and yet sad in its pathos, creating a moment of conflict that uncovered the reason the couples are in trouble and how strong Rose and Lotty have to be to take this bold step.
Of course, once the action moves to Italy, the real confusion explodes, with moments of madness, misidentification and magic. But it seems the castle’s power brings clarity to all, in the sea and through the wisteria. In the end, “it had all been about gardening.” The outcomes are somewhat predictable, but still very comfortable, like a satisfactory holiday.
This show was well worth the drive to Cleburne. It was entertainment and empowered storytelling, a real feather in the cap for Plaza Theatre Company.
Plaza Theatre Company
111 S Main St, Cleburne, TX 76033
Plays through May 10th
Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 3:00 pm
Ticket prices are $15.00, $14.00 for seniors and HS/College students, and $13.00 for children 12 and under.
Get tickets and information at www.plaza-theatre.com or by calling 817-202-0600.