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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Wisteria and Sunshine

Theater Reviews

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The Rep’s new production of Enchanted April is not the gossamer offering the title implies. Banking its ample charm in a production rich in slight-of-hand comedy, Matthew Barber’s 2003 play is an adaptation of a 1922 novel that echoes the disruption and monotony constituting women’s lives after World War I.

He takes an even-keeled, lighthearted view of the boredom that two English housewives claim to experience as a result of the ongoing tediousness of the “surety of the routine.” The women place an ad in The Times of London for two more ladies to share the month of April in a secluded villa among the “wisteria and sunshine” of the Italian Riviera. The mismatched foursome discover that some miscommunication and uneven objectives have tagged along on their sojourn, but the warmth of their surroundings melts everyone’s inhibitions, dissolves ill feelings, and transforms their rigid outlooks into a new celebration of life.

Under Michael Halberstam’s thoughtful direction, the tender moments are balanced with some hilarious quips: “How difficult to be improper without men around,” claims the glamorous Lady Caroline, in a spiffy performance by glamorous Deborah Staples .

“God is a man, ” retorts the more fastidious Rose, well played by veteran Laura Gordon. As the wispy, dream yeyed Lotty Wilton, who provides the optimistic motif of the show, Linsey Page Morton is sometimes hard to hear. In her most euphemistic moments, she is told she would be “too much even for Pollyanna.” Men do appear, however. Actor Gerard Neugent, as the youthful landlord, charms Mrs. Graves, the oldest and most acerbic member of the group, into smiling and abandoning her walking stick. The aphrodisiac effect of Italian sunshine and wisteria induces Lotty and Rose to contact their husbands, with hilarious results. Lady Caroline has had more than a passing acquaintance with one of the spouses. There is a gratuitous nude scene. One of the well-built husbands cannot cut the mustard with Italian plumbing and drops his towel, bringing the house down with it. Actors Torrey Hanson and Brian Vaughan create enough chemistry to keep the ladies happily off-balance, guiding the play towards a crowd-pleasing positive conclusion. As the Italian housekeeper, Marilynn Bogetich conceals her disregard of foreigners with masterly comedic precision, but her untranslated asides speak volumes.

As in all fine light comedies, the deeper implications of the text are more effective when implied rather than stated. Although Barber provides a brief prologue and cumulative epilogue, the play would have succeeded well without it. Runs through March 8 at Milwaukee Rep’s Steimke Theater.