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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 10.26.06

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Awkwardly Endearing

VLT's April stumbles but charms

BY SUZI STEFFEN

Be careful about wearing a colorful scarf to the Very Little Theatre's production of Enchanted April. You may hear "My goodness, you look like you stepped right off the stage!" at intermission. Aside from the colorful costumes and the lovely second-act set, April offers the basic satisfaction of storylines resolved nicely, after slight rebellion, inside the confines of married love and the beauty of life.

Mrs. Wilton (Jennifer Sellers Andersen) and Mrs. Arnott (Maggie Muellner) try to decide if the brash young Lady Caroline (Leslie A. Murray) will be a good castle-mate. PHOTO BY JOHN BAUGUESS.

One issue in any community theater like the VLT (a small miracle of a place, now in its 78th season) is that each production offers a mix of talented professional actors and servicable amateurs. The contrast can be bumpy even when the professionals play to their companions with as much generosity as do April's Rebecca Nachison, who plays Mrs. Graves, or Chris McVay, who plays castle owner Antony Wilding. Both are highly experienced on stage and screen, and along with Leslie A. Murray as Lady Caroline Bramble, they help anchor and settle this somewhat wild production.

For those who escaped the juggernaut of Enchanted April — the 1922 book, the 1935 movie, the 1992 movie — a short plot summary: It's not so long after WWI, and a depressed London is living through a rainy winter. The air in the Ladies' Club where Lotty Wilton (Jennifer Sellers Andersen) and Rose Arnott (Maggie Muellner) take their tea fills with longing. Mrs. Wilton, flighty and kind, yearns for freedom from her overbearing husband (Adam Leonard); Mrs. Arnott, prim and pursed, aches for something her husband (Earl Ruttencutter) can't provide.

Matthew Barber's script telegraphs early on what's missing in Mrs. Arnott's life, just as it paints with a broad brush the strokes that define the characters of the four women (Mrs. Wilton, Mrs. Arnott, Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves) who take their destinies in their own hands and trot right out of the gloomy English winter to a sun-drenched spring on the Mediterranean. Will Rose Arnott learn to trust and love her husband again? Will Lady Caroline reveal her secrets and cast off her lonely ways? Will Mrs. Graves unbend from her starched Victorian manner to fit the post-war age? And will the ebullient Mrs. Wilton ever, ever shut up?

The first act takes place entirely in London and, in this production, entirely before the curtain. Because the VLT is not the Very Big Theater, it would behoove the actors to underplay scenes so close to the audience. Muellner's Rose Arnott, especially, could benefit from toning down the first act to provide more of a foil to Andersen's Mrs. Wilton, a bird of annoying joy who brims with Mary Tyler Moore-ish verve and confidence. In one pivotal, parallel scene in the Wilton and Arnott households, no one's timing quite hit; the audience laughed at unfunny moments and didn't laugh when humor should have been apparent. Perhaps director Melina Neal can work with the cast to rectify the pacing there.

The second act is set in the castle in Italy which the four women have rented. The audience gasped and applauded the warmly painted set, and if the play had been scheduled in Oregon's rainy February instead of this sunny October, travel agents would have been wise to hawk their services just outside the door. The show gains energy from conflict, both internal and between or among characters. One can't help but root for McVay's handsomely smooth Wilding as he sets his cap for Mrs. Arnott or for Ruttencrutter's hapless Mr. Arnott in his pursuit of Lady Caroline. Although the actual thrills of Mr. Wilton's hot bath scene are milder than one imagine the actor's Kitsch Alive comedy sketches to be (why, oh why, the boxers?), at least the agonized hilarity helps bond the audience with the suffering actors and characters. And as the script moves both character and plot forward, a sympathetic audience can help forgive the uneven acting and appreciate the way Mrs. Wilton changes what she has into what she wished she has, helping many others along the way.

Enchanted April continues Oct. 26-29 and Nov. 2-5 and 10-11. Call 344-7751 for tickets.

 





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