Noel Coward once recalled the very moment he finished writing his play Blithe Spirit. “Disdaining archness and false modesty,” said the famously verbose British scribe, “I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.”
First performed on London’s West End in 1941, Blithe Spirit is perhaps the most famous of Coward’s many comedies. The story of an urbane novelist who hires a kooky medium, and inadvertently summons the ghost of his ex-wife – much to the chagrin of his very-much-alive second spouse – it’s an evergreen, a perennial, a warhorse on theater stages the world over.
“People have been interested in life after death from years ago to the present, judging by shows that are still popular now, like Long Island Medium,” observes Staci Sabarsky, who’s directing a new production of Blithe Spirit at Tampa’s Stageworks Theatre. “People have always wanted to get in touch with their loved ones, knowing they’re OK, have they changed or are they still the same?”
Elvira, the titular spirit, is very much the same. She was – and is – a wild thing. The hapless Charles is the only one who can see or hear her, and she’s determined to scare, scam, lie and cajole her way back into his life. Or get him into her afterlife.
Sabarsky and her cast have been doing some character development. “Lauren Buglioli, the actress who’s playing Elvira, and I have had some discussions about Elvira – how much of what she’s saying is genuine, and how much is lying to get her way. I think she really does love Charles, and does want him with her – that’s what’s motivating her to do all these things – but apparently in life, too, she was quite a pistol.”
The third spoke in this supernatural wheel is Ruth, Charles’ in-the-present wife. “Long-suffering” doesn’t begin to describe her, as Elvira’s shenanigans – manifested for her by her husband’s increasingly bizarre, frantic behavior – makes her think she’s losing her mind.
“Betty-Jane Parks found a lot of the comedic side to Ruth, which is really necessary,” Sabarsky explains, “otherwise, Ruth can come off as a nagging wife, if you don’t find the humor in her as well as some compassion for what she’s going through. Betty-Jane does a wonderful job of bringing those aspects of Ruth out.”
The role of Charles is being assayed by area theater veteran Scott Swenson, who – among other things – spent 11 years as the Director of Creative Services at Busch Gardens, overseeing (and participating in) the park’s entertainment and shows.
Swenson is also a founding member of the WIT improv troupe.
Saborsky, who’s making her Stageworks directorial debut, is an actor, producer and director, and a founder of Innovocative Theatre, which does the occasional co-production with Stageworks.
The real star of Blithe Spirit, of course, is Noel Coward, whose propensity for verbosity – his skill at witty, rapid-fire dialogue – is on glorious display.
“I don’t think it’s difficult to put yourself in the positions of these characters, regardless of the language being a bit more … elevated,” Sabarsky points out. “You know, husbands and wives fighting over jealousies and things like that are still pretty universal.”
And what of the play’s justifiably celebrated history? “So many people have seen it and have some kind of preconceived idea of it,” Saborsky considers. “So I want this production to be fresh, yet true to how Coward envisioned it, and people’s memories of it. I think if something is beloved, and you change it too much, it loses what people love about it. If that makes sense!
“Keeping it fresh, keeping it moving, and keeping it true to its original intent as well.”
Blithe Spirit opens June 1 and runs through June 17. Tickets and info here.