WICA production celebrates an enchanted opening night

‘Enchanted April’ brings a fresh spring breeze to the South End

The Wiltons (Deana Duncan and Bob Atkinson) rekindle their love in Italy as the wise-cracking maid Constanza (Judith Dankanics) looks on.

‘Enchanted April’ brings a fresh spring breeze to the South End

LANGLEY — After a long winter, Whidbey got a special treat this weekend — sunshine and temperatures nudging the

70-degree mark.

That first breath of spring — you’ve felt it, right? Suddenly the sun slices through the gloom and bathes your face in the warmth of the sun and life is transformed. A simple pleasure.

“Enchanted April,” currently playing at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, is built on that premise. Spring blooms in the Italian countryside and heals all the grayness of the bourgeois middle class trudging through life in what seems like a perpetual English winter.

Lotty Wilton, played by Deana Duncan and Rose Arnott, played by Jennifer Bondelid, two women trapped in unsatisfying marriages and a gray post-World War I England, hatch a plan to get away from it all. The play articulates the wonderful experience that escaping on holiday provides us — the opportunity to be free of obligations and remind ourselves of who we are at heart.

The promise of better times and a sunnier outlook is the lesson of “Enchanted April,” Matthew Barbwer’s stage adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s early 1920s novel, that celebrated its WICA opening on the newly dedicated Michael Nutt Main Stage Friday evening.

But the play has deeper facets.

The two tired and secretly depressed women rent an Italian castle for the month of April, in a furtive emancipation from their husbands. In order to afford the rent, they advertise for two more women to join them. The uptight Mrs. Graves and stunningly beautiful socialite Lady Caroline Bramble agree and the unlikely foursome escapes to the Italian countryside.

In the course of the play, the characters open up about lost loves, lost lives and the hopelessness of the post-war era.

Each must make adjustments in order to live with one another but the magic of San Salvatore slowly seeps into their minds and their bodies to soothe and heal. Friendships come alive.

The audience sympathizes with Lotty and Rose. Lotty is married to businessman Mellersh, played by Bob Atkinson, and Rose is married to the hard-partying, globetrotting writer Frederick, played by Rob Scott. For different reasons, the couples have lost sight of why they were married in the first place. Lotty has become not much more than a servant to her husband, but can’t deny the urge to live a little. Frederick, however, is living it up, roaming through society gatherings while his wife Rose lives a life of restraint and service to her church. Comparisons are frequently — and cleverly — made between Lotty and Rose and World War I widows, all of whom have to some degree lost their husbands.

The four lead women were brilliantly cast and their performances stood out.

Duncan creates a lovable character. She rips through the play like a tornado of energy taking everyone in her path along, with her fast-talking enthusiasm for her getaway. Duncan’s facial expressions, timing and wit make her hard to resist. Once, even her counterpart Bondelid was fighting to not crack a smile as she portrayed the uptight Rose.

Bondelid’s gradual transition from straight-laced to free-thinking is a joy to watch. She is so uptight at the beginning of the play, that when she finally stands mid-stage upon arrival in Italy and deeply exhales, I exhaled with her. She really was the “disappointed Madonna,” but turned into a Venus de Milo over the course of the play.

Patricia Duff, who usually brings Record readers the theater reviews on this page, returns again to the local stage, portraying Lady Caroline Bramble with the brittle surface of a thoroughly modern, independent woman with a frightful coolness about her but a soul haunted and hurt. Duff succeeded in revealing her character’s vulnerability and executed the transformation of her character the most naturally. There was melancholy, boredom, cynicism and a lust for life in her character and Duff captured it all.

Mary Kay Hallen takes on the imperious Mrs. Graves with authority. She registers each breach of etiquette or morals with a grim lift of the brow, but manages her transformation in a more relaxed version of her proper self without losing the character. One of the production’s many highlights is her ongoing war with the Italian housekeeper Costanza.

Judith Dankanics is hilarious as the castle’s wise-cracking maid Costanza. All of her dialogue is in Italian, but it seldom seems to matter. Each of her muttered exits made audiences chuckle.

The male characters come to blossom almost as much as the women do once they make their way to San Salvatore, but its not as effectively communicated in their acting.

Frederick ends up with his prudish wife and glamorous love interest in Italy and is forced to choose to embrace or reject his life with Rose or follow his artist friends to a endless string of parties.

Mellersh must decide if his stuffy, uptight ways are worth losing his wife over.

That affords a priceless bit of physical comedy that had the audience in stitches. Atkinson, as the insufferable prig married to Lotty, made quite an impression with a delicate dance wearing only a towel, after he and the old castle’s plumbing had a run-in.

Rob Scott, as Frederick, did a good job conveying the emotional torment over his distant wife, but he could have looked a bit more genuinely surprised to find his wife and his secret love interest in the same castle.

Tim O’Brien, as castle owner Anthony Wilding, is sort of an amiable, hospitable chap to whom one takes an immediate liking. O’Brien had some trouble at the beginning of the show with volume and diction, but stepped it up through the course of the show.

The production is blessed with sharp, vivid performances.

Director K. Sandy O’Brien brought her vision for “Enchanted April” artfully to life and her cast followed her beautifully.

Everyone in the cast certainly seemed to be having a delightful time on stage and that’s certainly not hard to understand. The audience may walk away with a similar joy and pleasure.

Kudos go to Jason Dittmer for his stage design. He cleverly created the claustrophobic and gray setting for the scenes set in England with slides projected against a screen illustrating a dreary London, while the actors played on a rather plain stage. Then, once the play moves to Italy, the stage opens up into a spectacular, spacious Italian villa patio that sent an approving “Oooohhh” and “Aaahhhh” through the audience.

There were some minor technical issues. The weather and explosion sound effects were muffled. And there were some problems with the lighting.

But overall it was a great two hours of entertainment. “Enchanted April” has moments of superior character insight,

poignancy and comedy. It’s unremittingly optimistic and just what Whidbey needed after a dark winter season.

Like the wisp of scent from flowers on a spring breeze, “Enchanted April” remains a light pleasant memory once it’s over. But to all those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine, that will likely be enough.

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached 221-5300 or mmarx


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