Normally when I go see a play or musical, I have some level of expectation of what I’m going to see. My latest outing found me in my old stomping grounds, The Williamsburg Players Theater. I had very little familiarity with Enchanted April at the time. I knew it had played on Broadway, and I also knew it was a feature film back in the early 90s. Beyond that, the subject matter was not something that I ever thought would interest me. After seeing the production at Williamsburg Players on a Saturday evening I realized that I had been missing out. I went in not knowing what to expect, and left having encountered a truly entertaining and awarding experience.
Directed by Neil Hollands, Enchanted April is a play about four women vacationing in an Italian villa, seeking to find tranquility in the face of adversity. It seems like Mr. Hollands really put his heart and soul and his wallet into the production. Unfortunately, the night did not get off to the best start. There were some technical issues in the very beginning that distracted from the experience. I will go into detail about that later. Once they progressed past this minor glitch, however, the production started to draw me in.
I was impressed by the beautiful set design. The first act is set in front of a sheer curtain, allowing you to see the villa that is the setting of the second act. A gorgeous garden with a gazebo, a porch, marble statues, and wisteria draped everywhere. As the characters describe the elements of the villa, they are simultaneously lit in the background. This did a fantastic job of setting the mood for the first act. By the time the second act comes into play, and they are actually at the villa, it is easy to convince oneself that they are actually outside as opposed to a dark theater. Lighting was designed by Scott Hayes and Kayla Smith is responsible for the set design. Both did a fantastic job.
The story itself is conceptionaly simple, but the plot is filled with delightful nuances and downright intrigue. Lotty Wilton (Alissa Gaithe) is in a rut. Frustrations with her boring life and her clueless husband leads her to strike up a friendship with Rose Arnott (Amy Stallings). Rose is a fellow church-goer to Lotty, and keeps mostly to herself. At home, Rose’s husband Frederick (David Stallings) is a successful poet who spends his time gallivanting around and running with an elite social crowd. Rose is reluctant to join him on his escapades, as it is later revealed she is still suffering from a personal tragedy.
Lotty very aggressively tries to convince Rose that they should take a holiday in Italy, without their husbands, something in the 1920’s that could very well be considered scandalous. They spend just about all of their savings to make it possible, and recruit two others to join them. First, the extremely conservative and entitled Mrs. Graves (Carole Meyer) and the prestigious and somewhat reclusive Lady Caroline Bramble (Jessi DiPette). With the help of the villa owner, Mr. Antony Wilding (Jonathan Manning), they set off to Italy leaving their cares behind them. There, they meet Costanza (Ginny Catanese), who attends to their needs, and berates them in her native Italian. Despite some initial difficulties acclimating themselves to each other, all seems peaceful until their husbands arrive unexpectedly. That is when we’re introduced to a hidden truth. One that was so superbly delivered by the cast that you could hear the entire audience collectively gasp once it is revealed.
I want to acknowledge that Amy Stallings has developed a great reputation in the local theater community over the years. Once you see her in this production, you will understand why. She brings to the stage an honest interpretation of Rose and her melancholy seems genuine. She is a brilliant performer and is always well matched with her real-life partner, David Stallings. Their chemistry is genuine and translates well to the stage. Amy’s strength seems to be more with the dramatic rather than the comedic, and when matched up with campier performers, the contrast can seem quite stark.
One such performer is Corey Mason. Clearly his character Mellersh was intended to be the comic relief. Corey embraces that role passionately. His performance was a breath of fresh air that the play desperately needed. When you consider the dark undertone that resonates throughout the production, however, his silliness seemed a little out of place. I had to wonder if he was channeling Peter Sellers in one scene in particular, and would not be surprised if Kato from the Pink Panther movies jumped out of the wisteria and started fighting him.
I’d have to say my favorite characterization came form Ginny Catanese. Even though she speaks Italian the entire time, you don’t need to speak the language to understand what she’s saying. Her facial expressions, her cadence and her body language communicates in droves her character’s enthusiasm and her distaste, especially for Mrs. Graves. It was the right brand of humor without going over-the-top.
Despite the many highlights of Enchanted April, it did have some problems here and there. The trouble in the beginning involved an improperly timed lighting cue, and a curtain that was opened far to early. Also whoever was operating the curtain failed to open it smoothly, instead jerking it a little at a time. Operations backstage are a dance number just like anything you’d see on stage, and it is clear that the backstage crew was missing a few steps. Scene transitions were agonizingly long during the first act. In one case a very large set piece was being dragged very loudly across the stage by one person who clearly needed help. It is evident that someone was not where they were intended to be. Another example would include stage-hands not successfully clearing the stage before the lights went up. To be fair, this was only the second night, so I’m sure they are aware of the mistake and have already compensated.
The prop design by Allison Stover was well done. There was one impressive set piece that was self lit, representing a church. Despite the grandeur of the piece, they could have afforded to make it a bit taller. Amy Stallings is quite statuesque, and next to her the piece looked a bit on the small side.
I don’t want you the reader to assume that these issues are anything serious. None of these things take away from the experience. I will say that there needs to be a better balance of the campy humor vs. the soul crushing somber that is presented on stage. I think that and any of the aforementioned problems are forgivable. There’s a very good chance that everything I mentioned was limited to that night alone. The production was engaging and made me empathise with the characters to the point of having an emotional investment in their well-being. At the end of the day, that is what Theater is intended to do.
Tickets for the remaining performances of Enchanted April are available at williamsburgplayers.org.