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PTC PLAY IS DELIGHTFULLY BLITHE AND SPIRITED, TOO

SHARE PTC PLAY IS DELIGHTFULLY BLITHE AND SPIRITED, TOO

Webster's says the word "blithe" refers to something that is of a "gay, cheerful disposition; carefree."

Which makes "Blithe Spirit," Pioneer Theatre Company's holiday offering that opened Wednesday at Pioneer Memorial Theatre, about the most aptly named production of the stage season.And not because the "spirits" in the play are especially "blithe." As written by Sir Noel Coward, they are, in fact, somewhat testy. But the spirit of the play is deliciously "cheerful" and "carefree," thanks in large degree to a spirited interpretation by director Charles Morey and lively onstage performances by a talented cast and crew.

True, Coward's play itself exudes a hearty dose of good cheer. The story centers around a wealthy writer who, as research for his latest project, invites a medium to his home to hold a seance. Much to his surprise, she conjurs up his late wife, who throws his life - and especially his second marriage - into a dither.

By the time the show ends (nearly three hours after it starts, I should add) we've got a second spirit to contend with, which Coward does in his typically witty, whimsical fashion. This isn't comedy of the knee-slapping, side-splitting, pie-in-the-face variety. Rather, it is thoughtful and stylish, sophisticated and urbane, a satisfying brand of humor that is based on good writing and effective characterization.

And that's where PTC's "Blithe Spirit" shines. Under Morey's creative direction, the entire cast comes through with wonderfully textured, multi-dimensional characters.

Max Robinson makes his first PTC appearance of the season a memorable one playing Charles Condomine, the writer who stands at the center of the play's action. Those who are used to seeing the gifted Robinson in the flamboyant character parts he has played so adeptly throughout his PTC career may be surprised - and even a little disappointed - at the control he exhibits here. But there is still plenty of the Robinson flair in evidence as Charles finds his ordered, aristocratic world being turned upside down first by one ghostly apparition - then another. Robinson is a delight to watch - and totally convincing - throughout.

The two Mrs. Condomines are played to great effect by physical opposites. First we meet Ruth, a tall, stately, charming beauty, elegantly portrayed by Anne Stewart Mark. Then we meet the shorter, blonder, spunkier Elvira, brought fetchingly to life (if you'll pardon the expression) by Joyce Cohen. Both women are superb, although I must say the show seems to perk up whenever Cohen's Elvira appears. Certainly, "Blithe Spirit" is at its best - not to mention blithest - when Robinson, Cohen and Mark are onstage together.

That's not to say, however, that the rest of the cast is less than effective. New York import Paddy Croft, for example, is delightful as Madame Arcati, the medium who can fall into a trance at the drop of a dance tune. Hers is the most physical performance in the production, and she makes it work with an expressive face and an aggressive, energetic acting style. Richard Mathews and Margaret Crowell deliver - as usual - in supporting roles as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, respectively, and Debra Woods Andrus has some good moments as the ditzy maid, Edith.

Morey puts this all together with his customary professionalism. If there's a better, more dependable director at this level anywhere, I'd like to meet him. One of Morey's great strengths is getting the most from his behind-the-scenes staff, and that's clearly in evidence here. Peter Harrison's set, for example, is impressive to look at and marvelously functional - especially in the play's closing moments. And Linda Sarver's costumes are stunning visually and nicely evocative of the period.

All of it - the writing, the acting, the direction and the technical supervision - comes together beautifully onstage at PMT for a production that is handsomely entertaining and professionally polished.

And, of course, spirited. Blithely so.