April 26, 2004





An escape plan, sweet and simple


A talented, artful cast makes the Pasadena Playhouse's 'Enchanted April' a magical triumph that warms the heart.


By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


If escapism has a patron saint, her name is Lotty.


As the self-appointed leader of a holiday outing one "Enchanted April" in the early 1920s, this breathless, impulsive London homebody, momentarily unmoored from a stifling marriage, acts a bit like a flower child before her time, literally stringing blossoms in her hair--which she's let down, of course--and following her bliss. "Honestly, Lotty, you'd make Pollyanna ill," deadpans her companion, Rose, after one of Lotty's especially sunny effusions.


Of course, in a romantic comedy like this, we know that even the most skeptical, shut-down characters will learn a thing or two from the dippy, cock-eyed optimist who believes that wishes do come true.


Happily, so do we. The Pasadena Playhouse's magical new production of Matthew Barber's play, adapted from Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel, is as good as they come: a lush, thoroughly refreshing theatrical holiday that warms the heart without insulting the intelligence, that pleases without pandering. Escape has seldom seemed so sweet.


Under director Michael Wilson, the show owes much of its appeal to its straightforward, even guileless storytelling. Umbrellas circle grimly behind a scrim to set the rainy London scene. Then sensibly dressed Lotty (Nancy Bell) comes downstage to wax wistfully about providence and enchantment, time and regret.


The occasion for these observations, and the play's launching platform, is an ad in the London Times for a month at a small Italian seaside castle, addressed "to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine which, among a population bravely slogging through an English winter, would include everyone.


But Lotty seems to be the only one, throughout a first act of unvarying greys and browns, who sees this vacation ad for what it is: namely, a chance to remake a dreary life of thrift and caution--to overcome what E.M. Forster called "the tragedy of preparedness." Lotty does connect, eventually, with Rose (Blake Lindsley), a dutiful churchgoer with an erring novelist husband (Daniel Reichert). And Lotty only narrowly avoids the objections of her own obliviously oppressive lesser half, the stiff lawyer Mellersh (Michael James Reed), by waiting until she's practically out the door to inform him she's going.


Meanwhile, she and Rose pick up two housemates: the universally disapproving dowager Mrs. Graves (Mariette Hartley) and a lazily jetsetting society beauty, Lady Caroline (Monette Magrath). The only like-minded soul they find is the castle's charming young owner, Antony Wilding (Chris Conner).


And they're off, into a second act that sprawls across a sun-kissed, vine-draped veranda, framed by impressionistic painted flats of huge flowers and a few Romanesque statues.


Here as in the first act, Tony Straiges' scenic design is the essence of simplicity, sketching an entire world with a minimum of fuss. Rui Rita's lighting, which had captured the cold blue chill of stormy England, here glows a warm yellow, while Alejo Vietti's costumes parallel the characters' inner uncorseting.


The show's most conspicuous triumph, though, is Julia Flores' casting: an artful culling of exceptional local theater talent rather than a flown-in assemblage of New York troupers and/or sitcom stars. As Lotty, the aptly named Bell is clean, clear and utterly disarming; she's dizzy like a fox, not a mere "April" fool. Lindsley blossoms touchingly as the more complicated Rose. The imposing Hartley imperceptibly warms Mrs. Graves' ghostly pallor and seemingly unshakeable hauteur, while the feline Magrath hits the right note of aloof neediness, particularly in an exquisite second-act reverie that looks like the beginning of a musical number.


The men--Reed's starchy lawyer, Reichert's sad-sack author, Conner's grinning if faintly despairing host--make game supporting players, as does Jayne Taini as the property's insubordinate Italian maid.


Audiences who saw Mike Newell's 1992 film were treated to fabulous scenery and a few delectable performances. Barber's adaptation of Elizabeth's novel offers a richer, more intimate journey.


"Enchanted April," the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Dr, Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 p.m. & 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Ends May 23. $34.50-49.50. (626) 356-7529. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.