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Photograph by Tom Chargin

Spring Thoughts: Emily Swallow dresses up as Lady Caroline Bramble in 'Enchanted April.'

One Enchanted Evening

San Jose Rep spends a sun-dappled 'April' in Italy

By Marianne Messina

LIGHT BUT NOT featherweight, sweet but not syrupy, San Jose Repertory Theatre's Enchanted April takes you from a rainy-day parlor in England to a sunny flower garden in Italy with just the right blend of fantasy and insight. After reading an ad to rent out an Italian castle, the "Pollyanna-like" Lotty Wilton (Domenique Lozano) tries to convince Rose Arnott (Julie Eccles), a woman she barely knows (but has called the "disappointed Madonna" from afar), to dream big and join her (sans husbands) in Italy.

Feminist undertones and Dale Carnegie maxims give Enchanted April (based on a novel from 1921 and famous as an art-house movie) all kinds of ways to overstate itself—to make Lotty tweeting or her husband, Mellersh (Jeff Woodman), insensitive—but this disciplined production weaves and bobs around every pitfall. Woodman manages to pull his Mallersh up short of overbearing, allowing a hint of awareness and a glimmer of vulnerability to make Mellersh seem worthy of Lotty's love. And as Rose's husband, Frederick, Dan Hiatt makes sure the gadabout poet has dash and a touch of the cad, while just under the surface appealing to his wife for a way back in.

The husbands are not the heavies in this getaway romance. Maybe Frederick Arnott has lost sight of his priorities, but Rose has shut him out. Mellersh Wilton is a little spoiled and patronizing, but partly because in being overly accommodating, Lotty has subverted her own vitality.

Meeting each new character is a delight as Lotty enlists women to share the castle rental with her. She has a vague belief that the women who have answered her ad are meant to go, though it seems the foursome couldn't be more mismatched. Rose can be a stifling Puritan ("One should not write books that God would not want to read"); the dour grande dame Mrs. Graves (Carol Mayo Jenkins) has a list of requirements that would seem to preclude the thoroughly modern hedonist Lady Caroline Bramble (Emily Swallow). Swallow's Lady Bramble is captivating and poignant. As the glamorous social butterfly, she's witty, cosmopolitan, wounded and forgiving, and a certain grace always shines from beneath her modern maven trappings (stunning flapper costumes by Shigeru Yaji). So, by the end of Act 1, the upcoming holiday has become a volatile concoction fraught with anticipation.

The production team has made elegant choices, heavy on mood, to wrap the action in enchantment. When the play opens on the women's club sitting room, the sight of rain cascading down the high arched window above Lotty's head (Scott Weldin, scenic design) and the sound of its interminable patter (Steven Schoenbeck, sound design) set a rightly dreary mood for two women with moribund marriages. The second act opens on the patio of Antony Wilding's (Adrian LaTourelle) Italian castle. At a recent show, when the curtain went up on the gurgling water fountain, ivy-clad castle walls and columns of lush wisteria "simply toppling over itself," the audience applauded in appreciation.

The denouement, one romantic evening, opens with such a concert of production elements—clear moon, twinkling stars in a midnight blue sky, the distant chirp of crickets, warm light glowing through the castle windows (Lap-Chi Chu, lighting design)—that murmurs of awe rippled through the full-house crowd. Though Enchanted April has the subdued tone of British parlor humor in the pleasant-to-quaint range, it's also fresh and funny and offers some crisp moments of staging: a tea cup save, pulled off to perfection; the fugue dialogue of the wives, in their respective homes, simultaneously telling their husbands they're going to Italy; and the all-butt-naked man scene, which is hilarious (say no more).

Enchanted April, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (no 2pm show Feb. 27) through Feb. 27 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $22$52. (408.367.7255)

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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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