Thursday, June 16, 2022


By Ruth Ross

The time is 1922. England, still reeling from its massive loss of men—almost an entire generation—in The Great War, finds itself on the cusp of modernity. And in Enchanted April, Matthew Barber's dramatic adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnin's novel, the pull of the modern has "infected" England's women. No longer content to behave in the old, accepted ways, the ladies of Enchanted April break free of their stultifying culture to go on an adventure: to find Paradise! (Left: Monette Magrath as Lottie and Carey Van Driest as Rose)

The plot of 
Enchanted April is driven by vivacious Charlotte (Lotty) Wilton's realization that her life has not turned out as she had expected. This being the case, she is ripe for the opportunities extolled by an "advert" in the newspaper extolling "wisteria and sunshine" at a castle in Italy available for rent for the entire month of April—an offer made all the more promising by the constant rain and generally dreary weather of a London winter.

Once Lotty has made up her mind to lease the villa on her own, without her husband Mellersh, she recruits Rose Arnott, whom she has glimpsed in church, bullying (albeit charmingly) the mousy, sanctimonious, unadventuresome Rose into joining the grand adventure. To split the rent (£60 for the month), the two advertise for roommates, adding the young, modern Lady Caroline Bramble and the older, more conservative Mrs. Graves to round out the foursome. Leaving dismal London behind, what the four discover in the sunny Italian environment changes their views of themselves, their lives and the lives of their loved ones, forever.

The elegant, charming production now onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Enchanted April, was a huge hit with STNJ audience members during the company’s Lend Us Your Ears Play Reading Series in 2018. The play was slated to open the 2020 season but was canceled due to the pandemic. Thus, it is a marvelous choice for a theater and audience coming out of a two-year pandemic hiatus. 

As Lotty, Monette Macgrath had me in the palm of her hand from the very first scene wherein she tells an outlandish tale of a man who planted his walking stick in the ground to mark the location of a future acacia tree, only to return to find the stick had taken root! Macgrath’s enthusiasm for escape is so infectious that I wanted to join her myself. While it is sad that this effervescent woman faces a life of unfulfilled expectations, unappreciated by her pompous husband, the single-mindedness with which she goes about putting the scheme together is awe-inspiring. And watching her blossom under the warm Italian sun puts a smile on your face. (Above, right: Carey Van Driest as Rose and Aaron McDaniel as Anthony Wilding)

As her rather unwilling partner (in crime), Carey Van Driest as Rose starts off so unassuming as to not attract notice, but the scenes with her husband Frederick reveal a tortured soul shouldering a great grief. Too, Driest's Rose comes to life in Italy, so much so that she is almost unrecognizable as the woman in Act I.

Rounding out the female quartet are Samantha Bruce (left, with Anthony Marble as Florian Ayers) as the bored, beautiful Lady Caroline, seeking to escape the busy social life of London, but also carrying a hidden sadness. She swans around the stage, a young woman affected by the losses of World War I. And Elizabeth Shepherd is inadvertently hilarious as the older, more conservative Mrs. Graves, confidant of Tennyson, who just wants to spend the month sitting and remembering. Faced with these lively, modern ladies, she too does a 180 and finds a self she didn't even know she had!

The trio of men nicely complement the women. Greg Jackson is suitably bombastic as Mellersh Wilton, a man so in love with himself that he doesn't even see the magnificence of the woman he married. He carries off a hilarious scene with a bath towel with ease, trying to maintain his dignity all the while. As racy novelist Frederick Arnott (aka Florian Ayres), Anthony Marble is quite the rake, but he manages to make the character sympathetic, showing us a man who has trouble dealing with his wife's coldness. He too has suffered a loss, but the two don't seem to be able to deal with it. And Aaron McDaniel is très charmant as Anthony Wilding, the owner of Castello San Salvatore. Smitten with Rose, he shows up at the place during their stay, livening the festivities and complicating the plot.

The entire second act, however, is stolen from under the other actors' noses by Celeste Ciulla (right, center, with Monette and Elizabeth Shepherd) as Constanza, the maid who comes with the premises. Speaking nothing but Italian, Ciulla uses facial expressions and body language to convey her exasperation with the odd whims of these English ladies, bringing down the house every time she appears! Just watching her peasant walk is a treat!

STNJ’s Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte helms the production wisely, never allowing the characters to become caricatures and keeping the action humming along snappily without feeling rushed. The set she’s designed is totally appropriate to the venues: stuffy, straight-backed furniture and muted colors for the scenes in London and stunning, sun-splashed colors for the scenes in Tuscany. Michael Giannitti’s lighting compliments each scene, too: dim lighting as befits rainy London but shining full tilt in second act Italy, making the difference between the two settings even more breathtaking. And Sound Designer Steven Beckel's use of tinkling piano music; the recurring melody of a 
1922 hit song, Ma, He's Makin' Eyes at Me; and Ciullo's rendition of “Se tu m'ami,” written by Italian composer Alessandro Parisotti, near the end of Act II enhances the experience.

Once again, Paul Canada provides beautiful costumes appropriate to the era and the characters who wear them. It’s especially noticeable in the women’s attire, which goes from tightly bound, corseted dresses to looser, diaphanous for Italy. The men’s clothing is really quite droll, especially the plaid suit Mellersh Wilton wears for traveling; his appearance elicited quite a laugh from the audience on opening night.

Enchanted April is a bittersweet comedy, for as Lotty Wilton puts it, "for every 'after,' a 'before' must be lost." But the message the end of the play comes through loud and clear: When asked what follows an enchanted April, Lotty answers, "An enchanted May"!

Enchanted April, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s inaugural production of its 60th season, will do just that: enchant you and make you realize just why you fell in love with theater in the first place. Don't miss it.

Enchanted April will be performed at F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., through June 26. For information and tickets, call 973.408.5600 or visit online at