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Flawed scripts, polished productions. The long, sketchy first act of Enchanted April, at Lamb's Players, recalls Chekhov's Three Sisters. But instead of going to Moscow, you wonder if four depressed women in 1922, under what seems a permanent downpour in Hampstead, northern London, will ever make it to sunny Italy.
Lotty and Rose talk about going and plan and assure each other that a vacation from husbands who pay them no heed's the right thing. They discuss finances. They invite Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves (the former young and flapper-"modern," the latter ancient and stone-gruff; both emotional shut-ins). We meet the self-centered husbands, and Anthony Wilding, the thoughtful owner of San Salvatori, a small castle on the Mediterranean the women will rent for the month of April. We hear about "before" and "after," of enchantment, risk-taking, and Lotty's visions, which assure everyone that Tuscan sunshine and endless fields of spring flowers can effect miraculous changes. All the while, the characters dress in black, and beads of rain perspire down the sole window of Mike Buckley's curtain-shrouded set.
For Act Two, the stage does a Kansas-Oz. Sunshine basks a marble colonnade, from which white wisteria droop like ripe grapes, with an orange glow. The play metamorphoses too. Cold characters thaw. Gloom departs. Smiles emerge. And every scene in Act Two gets better than the last. What had seemed tedious turns out to be a modest charmer.
Matthew Barber adapted the play from Elizabeth von Arnim's novel The Enchanted April, which, you'd swear, the movie Under the Tuscan Sun ransacked. Barber chose a 50/50 ratio of before (Hampstead in Act One) and after (Italy). Though it honors von Arnim's then-and-now theme and also suggests World War I and its aftermath, the balance creates a persistent sense throughout Act Two that entertaining material had to be trimmed. Farcical opportunities, even the characters' emotional blossomings, often rush by, as if late for the next luxury liner back to Britain.
To her credit, director Deborah Gilmour Smyth accepts the play's structural flaws and doesn't try to sweep them under the carpet. Instead, with a terrific ensemble cast, and accompanied by a cello fishtailing through the scene changes, she sustains a light, breezy tone, as if to say: this April in Mezzago, Italy, will be as enchanting as you want; it's up to you.
Which is the attitude of Lotty, the seemingly daffy, though sneaky-wise, tour guide. Kerry Meads does some of her best work ever as the unlikely enchantress, whose good nature and gentle persistence slowly convince you that she can, in fact, see a bright future, even if it looks bleak from here.
Rich is confused. He never found a "breakthrough cause, something that puts me on the other side...with the people who know they're alive." Rarely in theater has someone so confused been so eloquent. And that goes for all the characters in John Patrick Shanley's 90-minute "watercolor," Sailor's Song. Everyone makes explanatory -- nay, summary -- statements about life and the need to quit daydreaming and make fundamental choices (take the bird in the hand; forget the two in the bush). The play thinks its ideas for you.
Sailor's Song's a memory play. Rich returns to a crossroads, years ago, when he learned that "love isn't being saved by an angel," that beauty fades and "it all ends in bones." Rich fell for two sisters: Lucy, a realist; and Joan, a spirit-medium. Even though his uncle John orders him to "chose one, even the mad one, and let the other go," Rich wants to suspend the moment just prior to deciding. In effect, he denies life, while John, though he talks a good game, denies his wife's death -- the salt-and-pepper symmetry typical of Shanley's schematic approach.
New Village Arts' excellent production makes mystical what the play renders explicit: before a wall of stars, actors waltz expertly to Strauss's "Blue Danube"; a rowboat actually rows across Nick Fouch's appealing, understated house- façade and restaurant tables set; a Dance of Death unfolds to Otis Redding's immortal "Try a Little Tenderness" (though one prefers the Live in Europe version). Director Kristianne Kurner and choreographers Robin Christ (who performs the Dance of Death) and Kathy Meyer create the fluid dreamscapes everyone tells Rich to avoid.
Manny Fernandes makes Rich engaging and infuriating: you want to yell at him to climb down from that cloud. Doren Elias's gruff John overflows with Shanleyean sagacity. The playwright pens dialogue in HEADLINES. Elias -- no mean feat -- makes them seem spontaneous. Dressed in Jessica John's flowing summer silks, Amanda Morrow and Amanda Sitton charm as Lucy and Joan, the salt-and-pepper sisters. Morrow gets the best line: when Lucy pleads her case for Rich's love, she says that just because Joan "can see around a corner once in a while doesn't make her sane."
Enchanted April, by Matthew Barber, adapted from the novel by Elizabeth von Armin
Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth; cast: Kerry Meads, Ayla Yarkut, Ron Choularton, David Cochran Heath, Erin Byron, D'Ann Paton, Jason Heil, Rhona Gold; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Shon LeBlanc; lighting, Nathan Peirson; sound, Patrick Duffy
Playing through May 13; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600.
Sailor's Song, by John Patrick Shanley
New Village Arts, 2460 Impala Drive, Carlsbad
Directed by Kristianne Kurner; cast: Manny Fernandes, Amanda Morrow, Amanda Sitton, Doren Elias, Robin Christ; scenic design, Nick Fouch; costumes, Jessica John; lighting, Justin Hall; sound, Adam Brick; choreography, Robin Christ and Kathy Meyer
Playing through April 29; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245.