Time away could do us all good. Especially in light of our communal, suffocating cabin fever of the past two years.
Enter Enchanted April, the Providence Players of Fairfax’s latest escapist and endearing comedy that reduces Eat, Pray, Love to a mere appetizer. This 2003 play by Matthew Barber, adapted from a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, follows four mismatched British women who, starting as virtual strangers, pool their resources to rent a “modest” castle in Italy for a monthlong break from life’s doldrums. Not mere doldrums, but that bleak period post-World War I in which broken men, war widows, and survivors of the “Spanish” flu were clawing their way back to some sense of normalcy. War and pandemic. Perhaps you can relate.
Every journey requires baggage, and these ladies come fully freighted. Charlotte “Lotty” Wilton (a jaunty Jessa Whitley-Hill) is a free spirit tethered by the rigid rules and routines of husband-solicitor Mellersh (Christopher Crockett). She gets the idea for the getaway after spying an ad in the classifieds: “To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine …” Fronting some cash she’s saved for a rainy day — and when is it not raining in London? — she twists the languid arm of fellow women’s club member Rose (Andra Whitt), herself straitjacketed by a puritanical code of self-abnegation. They recruit a couple of moneyed types: Lady Caroline (Lindsey June Sandifer), a socialite burdened by her beauty, and priggish Mrs. Graves (Beth Gilles-Whitehead), who oddly lacks a first name but leans heavily on name-dropping.
Growing on one another’s nerves initially, these desperate housewives (of wisteria lane?) eventually grow on one another.
First-time director Amanda Ranowsky earns high marks for guiding their transformation from gloom to bloom. Lotty’s introduction is as a mere stick figure; the opening blocking feels painfully static as she and Rose interact awkwardly, taking baby steps toward fleeing expectations and constraints. But Whitt’s genius unfolds as a time-lapse study of art creation. She sculpts her Rose like putty, at first alarmingly long in the face, adding some blushing modesty, then finally peeling off her mask and shroud.
A little backstory: It was April 1921 when novelist von Arnim, then 55 and widowed in her first marriage, divorced from her second, and being courted by a bloke 30 years her junior, rented a “castello” in Portofino, Italy, with two sob sisters and started writing this source material. Women branching out and finding themselves — that’s the vibration both on and offstage.
In PPF’s production, as characters successively populate the scenes, the story (and lightboard) brightens. Gilles-Whitehead’s arrival, in schoolmarm garb, really gets things rolling with her razor tongue and surgical strikes of humor. The cast’s acting chops are universally sharp, but Whitt, Gilles-Whitehead, and Eleanor Tyler, as Genoan cook Costanza in Act 2, are matchless. As her name means “perseverance,” or “tenacity,” translated from Italian, Costanza is also the comedic anchor. While prattling on exclusively in Italian, Tyler’s unfailing, flailing body language and ethnic flair ensure no meaning gets lost. (Italian dialect coach Roberta Lisker adds the right notes of seasoning. Meanwhile, British dialect coach Cheryl Sinsabaugh sees to it that everyone convincingly speaks proper Queen’s English.)
The men, though, are no slouchers. Crockett, for one, standing well over 6 feet tall, holds his own with a snooty air and well-aimed screwball. He literally must fold himself into embraces with the hard-to-pin-down Lotty. Christopher Persil adds intrigue as Rose’s husband, Frederick, who writes salacious fiction under the pen name Florian Ayres — and under Rose’s disapproving glare. Chuck O’Toole charms as damaged veteran and romantic artist Antony Wilding, also the castle’s owner. Gentility and a raw vulnerability shine through his halting speeches. And even though Lady Caroline was looking forward to basking in solitude and not the attention of men, she becomes a Cassandra stocked by Sandifer with more assets and complexities than the script prescribes.
Ranowsky lets each character breathe and move to their unique rhythms. Whitley-Hill’s Lotty, described by her husband as a hummingbird because “one seldom sees it land,” flutter-talks at an often-feverish pace. She’s part flower child and part mystic — a seer with visions, a divining rod for finding heaven on earth or the gold buried within each soul. Whitley-Hill mixes innocence and wisdom into a refreshing fragrance that defines the show.
Now, full disclosure: I’ve known Amanda Ranowsky for two-thirds of her life, since she was in middle school choir. I’ve seen her perform in countless productions, under the tutelage of multiple directors, Gilles-Whitehead among them. (“It was surreal, but wonderful to have the opportunity to direct her,” Ranowsky shares.) Amanda’s always been a quiet, bookish, thoughtful but strong presence. Multitalented — and now fully blossomed. Involved with PPF for over a decade, she needed prodding to take the reins of this orphaned production, having encountered it in college (she earned her master’s in publishing at Oxford Brookes University in England). It was stage manager Julie Janson, also an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was deployed before opening night, who encouraged her to soldier up.
Granted, any director would find challenging a particular pivotal scene in which the two main couples wrangle in their separate bubbles, cross-talking, point-counterpoint, lines twisted, entangled. But Ranowsky conducts it in toccata and fugue, with lyricism and narrative intelligence, pinging on all the correct words. And even though the venue, the James Lee Community Center, is known for great acoustics, that’s no small feat without the benefit of cast mics. My companion with hearing loss didn’t miss a thing — a credit to the powerhouse projection of the performers, the layered but balanced sound design by Crockett (his birdsong was especially appreciated), and Ranowsky’s crisp direction.
Regular PPF patrons also have come to expect a fabulous set — set construction and dressing are among this company’s hallmarks. My advice here is to park your own dismay at the first act’s bleakness: the bare minimum of hardwood tables, chairs, and coat racks that convert to solemn pews and crucifix. Because just as the storied Wizard of Oz moves from a black-and-white harsh reality — also chased by bad weather — to a color-drenched dreamscape, so too is this production split into the before and after, from oblivion to fruition.
Costume design by Robbie Snow follows suit — transforming from stark to snazzy, straddling severe vintage and the modern fringe of the Twenties. The lush landscape of Act 2, designed by Jason Hamrick and decorated by the imaginative team of Ingrid David, Susan Kaplan, and Tina Hodge Thronson (Enchanted April’s producer), marks destination Destiny.
Primed for spring? Ready to remove the scales from your eyes to replace them with therapeutic petals? Through the Enchanted April portal, however you enter before, you’ll surely feel renewed after.
Running Time: About two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.
Enchanted April plays through April 9, 2022, at Providence Players of Fairfax performing at the James Lee Community Center theater — 2855 Annandale Road in Falls Church, VA. For tickets ($21 adults; $18 students and seniors), email email@example.com, call 703-425-6782, or purchase them online.
COVID Safety: All patrons, actors, and volunteers must comply with Fairfax County and Providence Players’ policies and protocols for COVID-19.
by Matthew Barber
Lotty Wilton: Jessa Whitley-Hill
Mellersh Wilton: Christopher Crockett
Rose Arnott: Andra Whitt
Frederick Arnott: Christopher Persil
Caroline Bramble: Lindsey June Sandifer
Antony Wilding: Chuck O’Toole
Mrs. Graves: Beth Gilles-Whitehead
Costanza: Eleanor Tyler
Director: Amanda Ranowsky
Producer: Tina Hodge Thronson
Stage Managers: Julie Janson, Roxanne Waite
Assistant Manager: David Whitehead
Stage Crew: Joe Neff, Han Nguyen, Nora Rice
Technical Director and Lighting Design: Sarah Mournighan
Sound Design: Christopher Crockett
Photographer and Special Effects: Chip Gertzog
Technical Crew: E Bennett, Ariana Colligan MacLeod, Jason Hamrick
Set Design: Jason Hamrick
Set Construction: Patrick David, Jason Hamrick, Brian O’Connor, David Whitehead
Set Construction Crew: John Coscia, Patrick David, Michael Donahue, Chip Gertzog, Beth Gilles-Whitehead, Jason Hamrick, Kevin Hamisch, Erica Irving, Susan Kaplan, Daniel Lavanga, Nick Manicone, Sarah Mournighan, Brian O’Connor, Chuck O’Toole, Chris Persil, Amanda Ranowsky, Lindsey June Sandifer, Tina Hodge Thronson, Tara Tripp, Eleanor Tyler, Roxanne Waite, David Whitehead, Andra Whitt, Ken Zabielski
Set Decoration: Ingrid David, Susan Kaplan, Tina Hodge Thronson
Set Painting: Ingrid David, Susan Kaplan, Tina Hodge Thronson
Costume Design: Robbie Snow
Costume Assistant: Tommie Curtis
Hair: Robbie Snow
Properties: Jayne L. Victor
Box Office and Ticket Sales: Danine Welsh
House Management: Roxanne Waite
Playbill: Susan Kaplan
Playbill Design: Ellen Burns
Playbill Advertising: Jayne L. Victor
Marketing: David Whitehead
Dialect Coach (British): Cheryl Sinsabaugh
Dialect Coach (Italian): Roberta Lisker
ASL Interpreters: Michele Bach-Hansen, Shannon Smith