By Nino Pantano
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — On a cold afternoon on Sunday, Jan. 22, we walked the picturesque, snow-filled streets of Brooklyn Heights to the Heights Players at 26 Willow Place. This company has been entertaining us with great plays and musicals for 56 years and is truly a Brooklyn treasure. Its production of Enchanted April was theater at its best.
The play was written by Matthew Barber, who was present at a previous performance of it by the Heights Players, from a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. A film version delighted audiences in 1992 and featured Joan Plowright, who was nominated for an Academy Award.
Enchanted April takes place in 1922, a somewhat confusing time in England. World War I had ended, leaving many a mourning widow. Others were “feeling their oats” and wanting more than an idle humdrum existence. According to director Suzan Montez, “Somehow — through the spirit of one woman and an intriguing ad in a newspaper — this unlikely cast of characters gets together in a castle in Italy, and life begins to change and blossom.”
The ad in the local newspaper advertises the availability of a villa in Italy with wisteria and sunshine, far removed from London’s rains and gloom.
Alexandra Drori was perfect as Charlotte Wilton, who sees the ad for a villa on a dreary wet afternoon and then recruits other women to follow her in her dream. Charlotte and her husband Mellersh Wilton, delightfully played by Julian Helisek, have attained the stage of bored aloofness in their marriage, and Charlotte pines for something more. In a stunning performance, Ms. Drori, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, truly captured her character’s spirit of longing and her dreamer’s vision. She not only took her reluctant friend Rose Arnott with her on that journey, but all of us as well!
The character of Arnott, another bored housewife, was brought to life by Ilana LaBourene. Her character is shy, practical, prim and proper and is always as tight as a flower that refuses to bud. She, too, is taken for granted — by her pompous and lugubrious author husband Frederick, who is forever away on a book tour, promoting his licentious novels as well as having flings under a pseudonym. Michael Bates was outstanding as this philanderer who gets his comeuppance later on in Italy. Bates has a flair for comedy and a most mellifluous speaking voice.
Lady Caroline Bramble was beautifully portrayed by the slender and alluringly chic Lucy Sheftall. To see her face when her paramour — who is really Lucy’s philandering spouse Frederick — suddenly shows up to join her on the terrace of San Salvatore in Mezzago, Italy, was truly a moment of near “hysteria under the wisteria.” Sheftall’s self-control and her reversal of what could have been a calamitous occasion was a moment to remember. She has a magical presence that is utterly captivating.
Anthony Wilding, the artist who rented his villa to the ladies, was romantically played by Alex Amarosa with crisp continental manners, good bilingual Italian diction and a truly beguiling flair. He was the key to the castle and truly the commander of the action. It was inevitable that he and Lady Caroline would get together. Amarosa has a matinee idol quality that was very appealing.
The character of Mrs. Clayton Graves, the regal widow who knew the great English poets in her youth and “speaks only Dante’s Italian,” was skillfully portrayed by the irresistible actress and Brooklyn Heights resident Sheila MacDougall. Her delightful and cantankerous portrayal of this grand dame brought back memories of the great Ethel Barrymore, who excelled in such roles and would have admired Ms. MacDougall’s vivid portrayal of this juicy tour de force. Mrs. Graves too, is transformed from a crusty old dowager to someone who joins a loving fraternity of female friends. At the finale, she leaves her cane behind.
Finally, the Italian maid Costanza was played with gusto by Catherine Russo Kelly. To see her double-take after hearing Mellersh Wilton, wanting a bath, pronouncing “il bagno” as “bag” was hilarious. Kelly’s performance was one that did not suffer fools lightly and one that gathered many laughs. Her lines were spoken in Italian, with one or two well-placed words in English! Mellersh’s falling towel (Julian Helisek) in the bath scene was hilarious. I thought of Cary Grant at his best.
The sets by Gerry Newman were evocative of London flats and Italian villas, with hanging wisteria and fountains for the latter.
The superb 1920s period costumes and attire by Gina Healy were a marvel. Lady Caroline Bramble was truly the epitome of chic with her elegant feathered hats and sparkling sequined outfits.
The flawless directing by Susan Montez assisted by Susan Groberg was outstanding and the action flowed smoothly.
The lighting, subtle and mood creating was by Leo J. Contrino. The sound by Robert G. Waring evoked thunderstorms of London and the gentle melodies (“O Sole Mio”) of Italy.
This was an ensemble performance to treasure — like “Masterpiece Theater” coming to life. It gave the SRO audience April in January and took us all on a magical Italian journey. We too left the theatre feeling reborn and renewed.
The Heights Players’ next presentation is The Foreigners, from Feb. 3 to 19. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752 or visit heightsplayers.org.