You don't often hear the name Elizabeth von Arnim nowadays, but what an intriguing woman she must have been. In the early 20th century, this once-popular novelist worked her way through many marriages (including one to the brother of Bertrand Russell) and had a three-year affair with H.G. Wells. When in 1922 she wrote The Enchanted April at age 56, von Arnim had lived long and unhappily enough to be able to model all four of the novel's lead characters on various facets of herself.
The plot concerns four dissimilar London women who share a one-month lease on a small medieval castle on Italy's Amalfi coast. Two of the women are trapped in loveless marriages; a third is a crotchety old widow who is fixated on the distant past; the fourth is a young socialite war widow who has turned to drink and partying in a futile attempt to deny the recent past. When they meet in Italy, just as you would expect more than that, just as you would hope the experience is transfiguring. The beauty of the palazzo instills all four with the freedom to love again; the act of loving in turn allows them to become beautiful again.
That this still eminently readable novel is remembered at all is mostly due to the success of the immaculate 1992 film version, which wisely shortened the title to Enchanted April. The story received another infusion four years ago when a stage adaptation by Matthew Barber had a brief run on Broadway. Barber reduced the novel's theme the need to accept death as part of the life cycle to simplistic terms. Now Act Inc. is giving that script a warm, cozy production directed by Deanna Jent. As thin as the material is, it's still easy to be embraced by the evening's feel-good warmth.
"All I'm asking for is your faith," Lottie (Julie Venegoni), the most mystical of the four women, implores the earthbound Rose (April Strelinger). But Lottie is asking for our faith too faith in a belief system that will allow us to buy into this fanciful tale, faith in the certainty that, as Lottie tells us, "anything can happen" onstage as well as in life. Lottie might as well be Peter Pan, cajoling us to clap if we believe in fairies. If it's not in you to believe, best to avoid the inherent sentiment of Enchanted April; if you can believe, this production is fraught with charming virtues.
They include the redoubtable Nancy Lewis as the cantankerous old widow. As Lewis totters about the stage, a brittle extension of her wizened walking stick, she gives us the most delicious tribute to Agnes Moorehead at her wicked best. When this implacable British harpy engages in a battle of wills with the immovable Italian housekeeper (Teresa Doggett, delightful), sparks and laughter fly.
But Lewis is one of the most gifted actresses in town; we would expect her to convey the poignancy hidden beneath a dowager's misanthropy. The really surprising performance comes from Julie Venegoni, who is able to make sense of Lottie, a character who is so impossibly good and pure, we're told she would "make Pollyanna ill." Lottie can be hard to take (she was in the movie), yet Venegoni who is often relegated to roles that rely on little more than a facility for playing kittenish light comedy emerges here as an actress of substance and conviction. She takes a character who is riddled with incredulity and makes her endearing. In Act One London Lottie is a dowdy frump; in Act Two she bursts onto the Italian terrace, as blissful as Juliet, astonishingly transformed. Having found a way to personify the evening's life force, Venegoni finds herself assuredly at the helm of a production that should enchant anyone who is willing to believe that a midsummer night can also smile in April.