Olympia Little Theatre’s 75th season lifts off with “Blithe Spirit,” a comedy with ghosts.
The Noël Coward play begins when skeptical novelist Charles Condomine holds a séance and finds himself haunted by the ghost of his late wife, with matters complicated by the fact that he’s remarried.
“The author basically has two wives and has to try to negotiate the relationship with both of them,” said director Kendra Malm.
The play is set in the 1940s, launching a season of chronologically ordered plays, one from each decade of the theater’s existence.
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First produced in 1941, “Blithe Spirit” has plenty of appeal for modern audiences 73 years later.
“It’s one of those classic comedies,” Malm said. “It has that dry British humor that I’ve always enjoyed. It has a lot of wordplay and a lot of intellectual jousting.”
Indeed, the play was last on Broadway in 2009, and New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote, “It can still keep an audience in a state of tickled contentment.”
And just this year, Angela Lansbury starred in a successful revival in London. “It's the sculpted dialogue that gives most pleasure,” Michael Billington wrote in a review for The Guardian.
It’s also easy to relate to the characters, Malm said. “It’s talking about more universal situations with the relationships between the people and the relationships between the sexes, rather than something that’s really of the period,” she said.
There are some challenges to presenting a play set in the ’40s, though. A notable one is the costumes.
Any period show requires research, said costume designer Diana Purvine. And she loves doing research.
But this one is particularly complex, she said, because World War II rationing affected clothing styles in multiple ways: Women hung onto old clothing longer; many new styles used less fabric; there was even a limit on how many buttons a dress could have.
And men’s styles were changing, too. At that time it wasn’t unusual to see older men in tailcoats alongside younger ones in short tuxedo jackets.
And there isn’t a lot of clothing from the ’40s hanging around in thrift shops, either.
“I’m trying to be as true to the period as I can with the monetary constraints of doing a show with seven people in it with multiple costume changes,” said Purvine, who has designed costumes for Olympia Family Theater, River Ridge, Olympia high schools and the youth summer program Creative Theater Experience. “I’m trying to find things and construct things with today’s fabrics that are close to what we had in the ’40s.”
But the most unusual aspects of costuming the play was the need to make two identical costumes, one in color and one in shades of gray, for a character who starts the play living and returns as a ghost.
“The ghosts in this show wear gray,” she said. “That’s in the script.”
Although it includes a death, the show is neither frightening nor tragic.
“It’s a very frothy ’40s comedy,” said Toni Holm, the president of the theater’s board. “Noël Coward reportedly wrote it in 24 hours.”