"April is the cruelest month . . ."
In soggy ol' England, at least, according to the gracious gaggle of women onstage now at Live Theatre Workshop. As would be January, February, March, etc. These gals would most definitely take Mr. Eliot's opening dictum in "The Wasteland" as unhappily applicable to them and their damp, limp lives.
So they connive to escape, hoping to transform the cruelest month into a delightful one in a castle in Italy, in playwright Matthew Barber's re-creation of the story "Enchanted April" for the stage. You might remember the enchanting movie of way back in 1992, with a few megastars—like Miranda Richardson (Golden Globe winner for Best Actress,) Joan Plowright (Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actress,) Alfred Molina and Jim Broadbent—which left us not with so much to think about, but simply allowed us to share the characters' reveries and quiet transformations in a refreshing setting. It was a mood piece really, a rather dainty revolution in a beautiful setting.
The book on which the movie is based, "The Enchanted April" by Elizabeth von Arnim, was published in 1922, and the stage play was produced in New York in 2003. Although the LTW version is entertaining enough, it isn't really enchanting, or at least not to the degree we would like.
Pieces with the subtleties inherent in the "Enchanted April" story are hard to make work in the theater. Or, perhaps we should say that Mr. Barber's version doesn't quite get us there. Of course, we're always saying we "liked the book better than the movie," but in this instance the film and the book work just fine, while the play just doesn't create the magic we expect.
Londoner Lotty (Carley Elizabeth Preston) notices an ad for a castle to rent for the month of April in Genoa, Italy, for 60 pounds. She entices Rose Arnott (Avis Judd) to join her. Since they could only come up with 30 pounds between them, they resort to advertising for a couple of companions. They end up with old sourpuss Mrs. Graves (Peg Peterson) and socialite Caroline Bramble (Lucille Petty). It is a varied group, to say the least, and it sets up a situation for humor and maybe even a bit of mystery that these actresses are talented enough to pull off.
Part of the problem is that the Barber doesn't let us get to the good stuff until after a dreary (especially staring at the dreadful backdrop which is the act one set) and much-too-long first act. But even with its length, there seems little more than a scraping at the surface of the characters.
The second act is at the castle with its promised "wisteria and sunshine." The dreadful first act curtain has been removed to reveal a beautiful scene, painted by David Johnston. Spirits have been partially lifted, and we witness how all of these characters are changing, aided by the presence of a temperamental cook (Toni Press-Coffman) who speaks only Italian (but doesn't fool any of us) and a sweet and kind young man who owns the property (Nowell Crawl).
But here is where it gets tricky as a play. Their transformation really comes of simply being—in a beautiful place where the world looks totally different and hope seems possible. But it's a challenge for the characters in Barber's work to show us their "simply being." In a book or even in a movie there is time to luxuriate and meander, in the imagination of a reader and in the wonderful visual dimension a movie can provide. In a play, this is much harder to pull off.
Even so, there are delightful moments and, overall, we get the idea well enough. And it's quite possible that on opening night, the piece had not quite gelled into what it will eventually become. Even though the play's thin fabric and seams were quite visible, the talent treading the boards just might be able to take this thin cloth and transform it into sheer, flowing fabric through which we see a funny, sweet and enchanting story.