Theatre Review: An Glowing ENCHANTED APRIL on Theatre Row
When the prim and stoic Rose Arbuthnot (Christiana Cole) encounters the forward middle-aged Lottie Wilkins (Leah Hocking) at a club, she is taken back by her courtesy as she is with the latter’s on-the-spot harebrained scheme to run off to Italy and split the rent for a vacation home on a seaside of Italy for the month of April. Rose is miserable because her husband, Frederick (Aaron Philips), while trying to accommodate her emotional needs, is remote and ducks away into his book tour. It isn’t loveless but there’s a loss of romance, which they grieve for in the heartbreaking duet “Everything Was Changed.” On the other hand, Lottie is unhappy that her husband (Mellersh Wilkins) pays too much attention and treats her like a secretary. They acquire two more female companions on their getaway, the opulent Lady Caroline Dester (Gena Sims) on the brink of marriage and the widowed cane-user Mrs. Fisher (Alma Cuervo). World War I — The War to End All Wars — very much haunts the fractured relationships between these wives, husbands, would-be wife, and widow.
Playing at Theater Row under Alice Jankell’s seamless direction, Enchanted April floats out of the pages of the 1922 novel by British writer Elizabeth von Arnim and carries old-fashioned tunes with heart. The more its heroines — and later their husbands — spend time with the wisteria of Italy, they change their tune. Its female players possess and navigate delicate contradictions, such as Rose’s own conflict, pining to be a dutiful wife, begging her husband to not be so generous with her, pining to escape her marital circle, while pining for his company and attention. Mrs. Fisher starts off as a well-intended but condescending advice-giver but her sensibilities also evolve in time to offer solace for Lady Caroline. The latter herself lets off interesting contradictions: She speaks with disdain about her impending loveless marriage, while also advising Lottie to tell her husband she appreciates him — appreciate his “drudgery.”
The book and lyrics by Elizabeth Hansen compress all the momentous details, the grievances that drove these ladies’ getaway. William Armstrong’s scene design has the clever minimalism of clustering the tops of floating white umbrellas to allow minimal projections by Erin Bjorn.
I have two footnotes. 1) While Lady Caroline Dester’s socialite role comes off as coded as white, the casting of Sims, the only black presence in the cast, lends itself to subtext of prejudice and racism on the part of Rose’s reservations about her opulence and remoteness. 2) Such closeness is fire-forged between women that sometimes I wished it charged more into the homoerotic subtext when Lottie kisses Rose or Mrs. Fisher rejoicing over being kissed by platonic friends in “This Feeling.”
Overall, the story of these ladies echoes how enchanted I was when reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening — minus the miserable and suicidal outcome — as it delineates the burgeoning love and understanding between the women and their male significant others.
For more information about Enchanted April at Theatre Row: https://enchantedaprilamusical.com/