By Ruth RossThe 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.
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.
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.
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 www.ShakespeareNJ.org.