Witty 'Blithe Spirit' warms up a cold winter night

  • Writer Charles Condomine (Nick Sandys) finds his marriage to Ruth (Erin Noel Grennan, right) upended by the ghost of first wife Elvira (Melanie Keller, center) in First Folio Theatre's revival of NoŽl Coward's "Blithe Spirit."

    Writer Charles Condomine (Nick Sandys) finds his marriage to Ruth (Erin Noel Grennan, right) upended by the ghost of first wife Elvira (Melanie Keller, center) in First Folio Theatre's revival of NoŽl Coward's "Blithe Spirit."

  • The appearance of the ghostly Elvira (Melanie Keller, left) delights Madame Arcati (Paula Scrofano, right), the medium who inadvertently summoned her back, in director Alison Vesely's production of NoŽl Coward's satirical "Blithe Spirit" for First Folio Theatre.

    The appearance of the ghostly Elvira (Melanie Keller, left) delights Madame Arcati (Paula Scrofano, right), the medium who inadvertently summoned her back, in director Alison Vesely's production of NoŽl Coward's satirical "Blithe Spirit" for First Folio Theatre.

  • The late Elvira (Melanie Keller) tries to seduce her remarried husband Charles (Nick Sandys) in "Blithe Spirit," NoŽl Coward's comedy at First Folio Theatre.

    The late Elvira (Melanie Keller) tries to seduce her remarried husband Charles (Nick Sandys) in "Blithe Spirit," NoŽl Coward's comedy at First Folio Theatre.

 
 
Updated 2/11/2011 11:32 PM

Count on First Folio Theatre to warm up a winter evening.

For six of the last seven years, the Oak Brook theater has served up thoroughly entertaining comedies that help thaw the post-holiday freeze.

 

On the menu this year is "Blithe Spirit," NoŽl Coward's 1941 comedy about the ghost of a late wife meddling in her husband's current marriage. First Folio remains true to form under director Alison C. Vesely, who offers a deliciously acted, nicely paced revival of Coward's satirical take on a less-than-blissful matrimonial state.

No one crafted urban life like Coward, who populated the dry-as-a-martini "Blithe Spirit" with upper-class sophisticates who like nothing better than to exercise their considerable wit. For garnish, he added a bit of screwball comedy.

Fortunately for First Folio audiences, this ensemble handles the physical comedy as deftly as they deliver the barbed compliments and gilded insults that make up Coward's distinctive dialogue.

The action unfolds in the country home of British writer Charles Condomine (Nick Sandys, whose timing is impeccable) and his wife Ruth (a nicely frosty Erin Noel Grennan).

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Their tepid expositional exchanges reveal cracks in the marital foundation that have nothing to do with the so-called astral bigamy about to take place. Regardless of the posh facade Coward's couples' project, their marriages actually exist in a precarious state -- characterized by petty jealousy, insecurity and frustration -- that worsens as time goes on. (It's no accident that the play's blithest character is the unmarried clairvoyant who unwittingly summons from beyond the third member of the play's paranormal love triangle.)

Under the guise of researching his latest novel, Charles has arranged a supernatural diversion for dinner guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Rene Ruelas and Ellen Cribbs). The guest of honor is the disarmingly daffy Madame Arcati (a gleefully guileless Paula Scrofano), a local medium who has agreed to conduct a seance for the skeptics. Things go awry when Madame Arcati inadvertently conjures the ghost of Charles' first wife -- the fascinating albeit "morally untidy" -- Elvira (Melanie Keller, a fine calculating coquette), who died seven years earlier. Visible and audible only to Charles, the ethereal Elvira (dressed in a ghostly gray negligee) does her best to disrupt his current relationship. Ruth, meanwhile, still grapples with feelings of insecurity related to her husband's first wife, until a second supernatural mishap further complicates relations between the threesome.

Rounding out the cast is Hayley L. Rice, very funny as Edith, the Condomine's ungainly, easily flustered maid.

Grennan, who movingly portrayed Josie in First Folio's 2009 production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," delivers a seemingly effortless performance that suggests she's a NoŽl Coward natural. Sandys is an aptly droll Charles while Keller pouts prettily as Elvira, a woman who always appears to be keeping a secret. But in the end, it's Scrofano -- with her winning smile and absolute sincerity -- who steals the show and warms the heart.