Long before Eat Pray Love, there was The Enchanted April.
Elizabeth von Arnim's best-selling 1922 novel about two frustrated Hampstead housewives who set off on a journey of self-discovery to Italy made travelling to Portofino without husbands a hot tourist trend, and has been adapted for stage and film regularly ever since.
Enchanted April, a 2000 version penned by American playwright Matthew Barber, played on Broadway, has had productions at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver and Theatre Calgary and now arrives east of the Prairies and onto the main stage of the Shaw Festival in an altogether charming incarnation.
Moya O'Connell stars as heroine Lotty Wilton, who, while reading the Agony Column in the Times one rainy day, stumbles upon an ad addressed "to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine" that was looking to rent a small medieval castle in Italy for a month. She decides on a whim to use the nest egg she's saved up to do so – and gradually convinces an even more dissatisfied but less impetuous woman from church, Rose Arnott (Tara Rosling), to run away with her.
The source of Mrs. Wilton's unhappiness is immediately made clear: She is infantalized by her solicitor husband Mellersh (Jeff Meadows, who is entertaining – though acting mainly with his mustache). Mrs. Arnott's sadness, more complex in origin, is slowly revealed – for starters, she finds her husband's source of income morally repugnant.
Mr. Arnott (Patrick Galligan) pens unsavoury poetry under the pseudonym Florian Ayers here, though I much prefer what he does in the novel – writing a series of popular biographies of the lovers of kings. "There were in history numerous kings who had mistresses, and there were still more numerous mistresses who had had kings," von Arnim writes wryly, without underlining it – a quality often absent from Barber's adaption.
The first act is a tease of teas all held in dreary English locations, conjured up on stage simply with a couple of tables and chairs. Mrs. Wilton and Mrs. Arnott add on an odd couple of travelling companions – the young, modern Lady Caroline (Marla McLean) and the elderly, imperious Mrs. Graves (Donna Belleville) – and build up to breaking the news of their travel plans to their husbands. Only at the start of the second act does the audience get to see where their ticket price went – all that wisteria and Italian sunshine plus a castle with deep blue sea behind, created in realistic detail by designer William Schmuck.
The plot, however, becomes increasingly pat: A rich, young owner of the castle (Kevin McGarry, hunky but clunky) shows up to flirt, and the leading ladies quickly heal their spirits and transform from Mrs. Wilton and Mrs. Arnott to Lotty and Rose.
As Lotty, O'Connell is very likeable but never quite finds an even level of whimsy with which to play the contrivance of a character, described as having a "mind like a hummingbird" and possessing an optimism that "would make Pollyanna ill." Rosling, on the other hand, prints a 3-D picture of Rose and her sense of loss, while McLean finds an exquisite inner ache beneath the seemingly unflappable flapper Caroline.
The Shaw Festival is marketing another play, Our Betters, to lovers of Downton Abbey, but Enchanted April is the better match thanks to Belleville's performance as Mrs. Graves – nearly as hilariously haughty as Maggie Smith's Downton dowager countess, delivering such snooty one-liners to locals as, "I speak only the Italian of Dante."
Like the hit British series, Barber's crowd-pleaser serves up the past through a contemporary lens in an accessible style. Or, to put it another way, here's history as mere dressing for today's clichés. As Lotty says in one particularly Oprah-esque moment, "We must forgive ourselves and our husbands."
Director Jackie Maxwell tries to inject some historical context, the names of Great War battles written in fading letters on the walls and windows of the first-act set. But soon enough, she lets the parade of lovely costumes, comically cranky cooks (Sharry Flett, not fooling anyone with her Italian) and the farcical dropping of towels prevail.
Enchanted April skirts dangerously close (or, perhaps, delightfully close) to Mamma Mia! minus the ABBA, but it's pulled off with undeniable polish. This season is the first in a long while where the Shaw Festival hasn't missed the mark once on its main stage.