Enchanted April

Austin Playhouse's Enchanted April' taps the story's timeless charms and envelops you in a captivating glow, as warming as spring sunshine

Arts Review

Enchanted April

Austin Playhouse, through Feb. 14Running Time: 2 hrs, 10 min

That first breath of spring – you've felt it, yes? The air is still chilled, the sky still gray, but suddenly the sun slices through the gloom and bathes your face in light and warmth, of a kind you haven't known in months. And as you close your eyes to drink it in, your nose catches a whiff of fresh flowers coming into bloom. It's a simple pleasure, but oh so sweet, to feel the world waking to life once more.

That's something of the feel of Enchanted April, as mounted by Austin Playhouse. As its stuffy, stifled Brits open up to joy and romance on a sunny terrace in Italy, a captivating glow radiates from the stage and envelops you, making you feel warmed and contented all over. Director Don Toner and a beguiling cast have tapped the story's timeless charm – that never-tiresome view of a green shoot breaking forth from frosty ground – to give us sunshine and the fragrance of blossoms, the promise of spring.

It's that very promise, in fact, that initiates the action in Matthew Barber's play, taken from the 1922 novel by Elizabeth Von Armin. A newspaper ad seeking renters for an Italian villa catches the imagination of Lotty, a desperate housewife of her day, suffocating under the weight of English winter skies (made real for us by the steady downpour of Lou Rigler's sound design), her barrister husband's humorless, patronizing ways, and a country's sorrow for the men lost to World War I. She becomes so consumed with the thought of escape to Italy that she enlists the aid of a woman she barely knows, the similarly smothered but proper Rose, to rent it and find companions to share the cost. The two are a classic odd couple – one perky and flighty, the other sober and dignified – and the actors here make much of the mismatch; as Lara Toner's Lotty flits about her, effusing over their getaway (to which Rose has yet to agree) so breathlessly that a hummingbird would be winded, Lauri Raymond's Rose sits stock-still, her eyes steadily widening and face slowly petrifying into a comic mask of dismay that silently asks, "What in heaven's name am I getting myself into?"

Of course, what she gets herself into is the improper, unseemly adventure that cracks the ice around her spirit and allows her to reconnect romantically with her considerably less repressed writer husband (AP Private Lives star David Stahl, delightfully assaying another elegant Englishman with a roguish streak). Raymond and Stahl are so connected to their characters and each other that we feel the ache of their separation, and their reconciliatory kiss elicits satisfied sighs.

Actually, the production is blessed with performances as sharp, vivid, and pleasing as the blooms in an Italian garden. Andrea Osborn, making a welcome return to the local stage, portrays Lady Caroline Bramble with the brittle surface of a thoroughly modern modern – artfully styled hair framing a frightfully cool face – but her eyes, haunted and hurt, reveal the vulnerability inside. Marijane Vandivier embodies the elderly, imperious Mrs. Graves with a mortification that befits her name. She registers each breach of etiquette or morals with a grim pursing of her lips and eyelids slowly lowering, like the sun finally setting on the British Empire. One of the production's many highlights is her running war with the Italian servant Costanza, played with sly verve by Mary Agen Cox, whose every muttered exit is priceless. Michael A. Danburg's villa owner is the sort of amiable, hospitable chap to whom one takes an immediate liking. Even Gray G. Haddock, who isn't really given much to do as the insufferable prig married to Lotty, makes an indelible impression with a delicate dance he executes quite skillfully – and hilariously – wearing only a towel.

In Austin, we're rarely starved for the sun, but the artists at Austin Playhouse get us to feel the sorrow in its absence and the grace in its return. That's enchantment any wizard would envy and any theatregoer should welcome.

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Enchanted April, Matthew Barber, Elizabeth Von Armin, Don Toner, Lara Toner, Lauri Raymond, Gray G. Haddock, David Stahl, Marijane Vandivier, Andrea Osborn, Michael A. Danburg, Mary Agen Cox

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