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Phantastic performance

When London was under air attack from the Germans in World War II, numerous theaters stayed open, defying the bombs, but the performance stopped when the sirens sounded to enable any of the audience to leave. Few did in my experience, and so the play would resume.

Noël Coward (1899-1973) scored a direct hit himself with his 1941 play "Blithe Spirit" (the title taken from Shelley's poem "To a Skylark") that is now delighting audiences at the Center Stage of Southern Oregon University Department of Theatre Arts, as directed by Dale Luciano, assisted by Curtis Goodman.

Here is how the play materialized: In an air raid, Coward's apartment and office were destroyed. So he and actress Joyce Carey took off for the quietude of Snowdonia in northwest Wales, where he wrote the escapist comedy straight through from beginning to end in five days, displaying his legendary writing speed.

A standout in SOU's production is Andy Zehrung's set design, which admirably captures the comfort and opulence of Charles and Ruth Condomine's spacious living room in their country house in Kent, England in the 1940s. They have invited a medium to conduct a séance there. He is a novelist researching the occult for his next novel and expects the medium will be all tricks and no truth.

As the participants huddle round the table, with their hands flat on it, the medium calls out: "Are you there? Do you hear me?" and expects a one/two response. The use of electronic percussion is overdone and over-loud. I believe one or two mystical knocks on wood serve better and are more in character.

What a surprise, then, when Madame Arcati — a wonderful Coward creation — inadvertently summons up Charles' mischievous first wife, Elvira, who has been dead seven years and plans a devilish mischief; a circumstance Coward exploits to the full with wit and ingenuity. I should not use the term "dead." The proper parlance is "passed over" — to the Other Side, of course, or the Great Beyond.

Mallory Wedding as Madame Arcati does her stuff — trances, paroxysms, flitting and floating and especially prancing to the strains of Irving Berlin's "Always." The line, "I'll be loving you" seemed a most appropriate sentiment. At curtain call she was warmly applauded.

Jonathan W. Dyrud as Charles is quite the charmer and is never funnier than when he is bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the ghostly goings-on. He is only too ready to escape from the dilemma, as advised by Madame Arcati, leaving the wives to spitefully wreck the house.

Jordan Leigh Wakefield as Ruth and Monique Barbee as Elvira have one other common bond besides being wives of Charles; they both have undertaken these roles as the culminating creative project to satisfy the thesis requirement for their bachelor of fine arts degree. Wakefield is a blond, attractively attired by costume designer Caitlin Bedford, whereas Barbee, a brunette, wears a becoming wispy white peignoir. They really bite into their roles with assurance.

Others in the cast include Richard Heller as Dr. Bradman and Danielle Chaves as his wife, friends of Charles, who take part in the séance. He had a very strong voice. And last but not least are Rachel Seeley as the hyperactive maid, who is ever off and running, and Tamara Burgess as Daphne, who helped release the spirits.

Coward was fascinated by death. One of his hobbies was watching surgeries. "I've witnessed death many times,'' he asserted. "I once had a man die in my arms." In "Private Lives," his 1930 play, Elyot says to Amanda, "Death is very laughable really, such a cunning little mystery. All done with mirrors."

And as for wit, with which he was liberally endowed, he maintained that it was like caviar: "It should be served in small portions and not spread around like marmalade."

"Blithe Spirit" plays Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Call 552-6348.