One of the many charms of Tacoma Little Theater is that it is the one community theater in town that goes all out for Halloween. There has been a Halloween production at the now century-old theater for the past I don’t know how long. Two years ago, there was an atmospheric production of “Dracula” and last year there was the well-acted production of “Blithe Spirit.” This year, the TLT tradition continues with John Van Druten’s 1950 play “Bell, Book and Candle,” a story of a community of witches living in New York City in the modern era.
To celebrate its 100th season, TLT is revisiting productions that it has staged during the course of the last century. “Bell, Book and Candle,” being a play about witchcraft, fit the bill as the Halloween show. The production is directed by Brett Carr.
TLT’s “Bell, Book and Candle” has a lot working for it. Blake R. York’s midcentury modern set is spectacular and Michele Graves’ costumes are absolutely fabulous. Leading lady Victoria Ashley’s hair is a force in itself (Ashley has the starring role of Gillian Holroyd, a powerful young witch who decides to put a love spell on a neighbor). The show even boasts a real live cat as a member of the cast – Margo Collins (not your average cat name) playing Pyewacket, Gillian’s familiar spirit. Ashley is charming and attractive and has large, expressive eyes. Max Christofferson, as Nicky Holroyd, a conniving young warlock; Wendy Cohen as Aunt Queenie – an eccentric old practitioner of magic; and Mike Storslee as the drunken author Sidney Redlitch, are all humorous. Leading man Jed Slaughter, as Shepherd Henderson, the man who falls under Gillian’s spell, has a suave manner of delivery. He was brilliant in last year’s “Blithe Spirit” and is equally flawless here.
Despite these strengths, however, there are a number of barriers that keep this good play from being a great play. The audience remains a group of people sitting in a theater watching other people act. They never make that magical transition to becoming sympathetic participants in the story itself.
There is a bit of suspense (for the wrong reasons) when the feline member of the cast is brought out. I have a sense that everyone grew tense wondering whether or not the cat would freak out at the presence of the audience and bolt for the nearest exit. There were a few flubbed lines and a problem with one of the props. The greatest barrier, however, is baked into the script itself. This play has the feel of a dated television situation-comedy. In some sense, it actually is, since “Bell, Book and Candle,” along with “I Married a Witch,” were two of Sol Saks’ influences in the creation of the old television series “Bewitched.”
For this play to work effectively, it needs its premise – that there are people who can cast spells and work magic – to be viewed against a societal backdrop in which reason and science reign supreme; i.e. the United States of the 1950s and early 1960s. This play assumes that its audience is completely demystified in order for the idea of witchcraft to seem remarkable. Today, the idea of there being communities of witches is part of everyday normality (whether or not they can perform supernatural feats is another matter). The result is that the play is interesting but not riveting. It is a quaint cultural artifact of the Jet Age.
If part of the art of theater is trying to find a way to make a dated script live again as a thing relevant to the present, this one would present any director with significant obstacles.
With this TLT production, we have to be content with a piece of theater that functions as a pleasing seasonal mood setter, even if we cannot experience the comedy and the element of astonishment that was the original intent of the play. There are some lines that still conjure laughs, but probably nothing like they would have in 1950 when this play was first performed on Broadway, or in 1958 when the script was made into a movie starring Kim Novak as a Gillian and James Stewart as the man that she bewitches.
Go to enjoy the magic of Halloween. You will probably be charmed if not enthralled.
For more information, visit www.tacomalittletheatre.com.