Simplifying matters greatly, there seem to be two kinds of plays at the Shaw Festival: brooding productions like Faith Healer and Major Barbara, and lighthearted whimsies like Peace in Our Time and The Light in the Piazza.
And then there is Enchanted April, a play which combines breathtaking aesthetics, social issues, splendid costuming, marvelous acting and turns it into a two-and-a-half hour production that will leave even the most jaded viewer more than a little awed.
Based on the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Armin and directed by Jackie Maxwell, Lotty Wilton (Moya O’Connell) is the olden-day version of Eat, Pray, Love‘s Elizabeth Gilbert. Infantalized by her husband, Mellersh Wilton (Jeff Meadows), Lotty convinces a stranger neighbour (Tara Rosling wonderfully playing the uptight Rose Arnott) to rent unseen an Italian villa for the month of April. To ease money matters, Lotty places an ad calling for two more women and receives responses from a Mutt-and-Jeff duo, the modernity-shunning Mrs. Graves (Donna Belleville) and her physical and mental antithesis, Lady Caroline Bramble (Marla McLean). It’s a girls getaway at a time when the mere concept was unthinkable; women just didn’t make their own decisions to pack up and leave- not without their husbands’ permission, anyway.
If the first half is a stereotypically English with its dreary settings and tightly repressed emotions, the second half is as Italian as it gets: life bursts forth from every corner with a vigor that’s startling in contrast, and no expense is spared on the more-than-grandiose set design. There is plenty, as advertised, “wisteria and sunshine”, and even a saucy Italian maid to go top it up (Sharry Flett as the non-English speaking but very crafting Costanza).
It is both to Ms. Maxwell’s credit and discredit that the play wrestles with its themes of opposites, balance and freedom. She does an admirable job in guiding Ms. O’Connell’s impulsive Lotty, a woman flitting back and forth faster than a hummingbird who still gives the distinct impression of an underlying sadness. And she does an even better job still in pairing her with Ms. Rosling, whose character is so tightly wound she makes Hyacinth Bucket look like a freewheeling hippy. The duo of Mrs. Graves and Lady Caroline, as predictable as their eventual happy outcome is, never suffers for want of pure unadulterated fun to watch. There’s even a charming scene at the end with Mrs. Graves and Costanza as each demonstrates how far they’ve come on their respective journeys, even if it does come off a little cheesy.
One point that weakened the production was the presence of the men, Antony Wilding (Kevin McGarry) as the landlord of the villa whose accent fools no one, Mrs. Arnott’s husband, Frederick- or Florian Ayers (Patrick Galligan), depending on which woman he’s with), and the aforementioned Mellersh. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, but there’s nothing truly right about them, either. As easy to watch as they are onstage, none of them brings anything to the table that elevated the play higher than it already was, a sort of trio of acting chocolate bars.
By the end of the play, it’d be easy enough to let yourself get swept up in the grandeur of personal conviction and Italian seaside beauty, but there’s a deeper point here not to be missed: personal decisions almost always come with a struggle and a price, and how determined we are to make those decisions doesn’t always have to spell doom and gloom.
Enchanted April plays at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 26th.