Chicago Theatre Review
A Breath of Spring
Slip off your Wellingtons, shed your Mackinaw and fold up your bumbershoot. Matthew Barber’s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s novel about four ladies who book a much-needed holiday away from soggy Olde London at a secluded Italian castle is a splendid entertainment after what has been Chicago’s wettest, rainiest April in history. It’s the perfect play presented at the perfect time, and what a welcome delight it is.
Artistic director Scott Phelps has staged this delightful respite from the rain with style and flair. Drab Act I, takes place in Hampstead, England during the monsoon season of late winter. Shades of gray and black dominate both set and costumes against a soundscape of eternal precipitation, and peppered with occasional thunder. Phelps has staged his company of actors amid stiff and stodgy formal settings: in drawing rooms, at tea tables, in church pews. His cast becomes extensions of their surroundings, the personification of the stiff upper lip. Only Lotty Wilton, the play’s narrator and the catalyst for this daring adventure, is able to temporarily break loose from those societal ties that bind. But this is, after all, the 1920’s when women’s roles were more restricted. Lotty’s dream of an all-girl holiday, away from the men who define a woman’s every word and movement, seems wild and almost sacrilegious to everyone but an enlightened “Modern.”
Phelps’ second act bursts with color, freedom and the bliss of living. The rain is replaced by sunshine, flowers and a girl-power camaraderie that turns infectious. Rose, the unhappy, uptight acquaintance who Lotty coerces into joining her in this much-needed getaway, sheds her dark cocoon-like clothing and becomes a butterfly in pastels and parasols. Even elderly Mrs. Graves, whose only London companions were her books and past memories, leaves her walking stick and blossoms into the younger lady she once was. Lotty’s third travel mate, Lady Caroline, relishes in a male-free environment…or so she says. With the unexpected arrival of Mellersh and Frederick, Lotty and Rose’s husbands, and Mr. Wilding, the handsome young landlord of the estate, everyone blooms under the enchantment of April.
Jamie Lee Kearns, whose strong resemblance to film actress Amy Adams is remarkable, is the unsinkable Lotty Wilton. Her spirited performance is the engine that drives this play making Lotty’s eternal romantic optimism as contagious as the sunshine. Kelly Farmer’s Rose is a deeper, more cerebral portrayal of a young woman whose married life has become dull, predictable and inescapable. As Ms. Farmer literally lets her hair down in Act II, all her sorrow and misgivings fall away, her expressive face prompting the audience to cheer her journey to happiness. Katherine Biskupic is stunningly beautiful and composed as the free-spirited Lady Caroline. Her life of ennui dissolves when Mr. Wilding (Matthew Gall in one of the brightest performances of the evening) shifts his interest to her and romance unfolds. Veteran actress Marilyn Baldwin creates a no-nonsense Mrs. Graves, the last bastion of proper British society. However, as the men begin to arrive we see her soften and become the darling of the day. And Rita Simon’s Italian housekeeper Costanza, supplies much of the play’s humor as she reacts to Mrs. Graves’ boisterous demands.
Christine Kneisel and Lisa Hale’s innovative, flexible set and period-suggestive costumes add sparkle to this entertaining production that make April, or any other month, as enchanting and refreshing as a Spring spent in the Italian countryside.
Presented Thursdays through Sundays, April 26-May 26 at the Citadel Theatre, 825 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
For tickets call 847-735-8554 or go to www.Citadeltheatre.org.
For additional information about this and other productions go to www.theatreinchicago.com