Flowers and feminism

A Mediterranean transformation on The Ridge

Stars of <i>Enchanted April</i>: (from left) Samantha Lucas, Eva Hilsee and Teresa Hurley-Miller.

Stars of Enchanted April: (from left) Samantha Lucas, Eva Hilsee and Teresa Hurley-Miller.

Photo by jay chang

Enchanted April shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, 2 p.m., through June 24.
Tickets: $12-$16
Theatreon the Ridge
3735 Neal Road, Paradise

On one level, Enchanted April, now playing at Theatre on the Ridge in Paradise, is a charming romance about the healing power of flowers, warm weather and gorgeous Mediterranean views.

On another level, however, it’s a proto-feminist tale of English women seeking freedom from their overweening and patronizing husbands by running away to a country known for its sunshine and flowers—Italy.

Enchanted April is also a play about recovery from the trauma of war. Written and first staged in 2003 by Matthew Barber, it’s based on a best-selling 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim that is set in the 1920s, just following World War I and the death of more than a million British soldiers in that blood-soaked conflict. It ran for 167 performances (including previews) at the Belasco Theatre and was nominated for a Tony for Best Play.

Its main character is Lotty Wilton (played Eva Hilsee), a supremely enthusiastic and ebullient young woman (she has “a mind like a hummingbird” and “would make Pollyanna ill,” other characters say of her). She is frustrated not only by the incessant London rain, but also by her stodgy solicitor husband, Mellersh (Addison Turner), who treats her like a child. When Lotty sees an advert in the newspaper seeking to rent San Salvatore, a medieval castle in Italy, for the month of April to anyone who “appreciates wisteria and sunshine,” she jumps at the opportunity.

She soon enlists a woman from her church, Rose Arnott (Teresa Hurley-Miller), to join her and help defray costs. Rose is even more dissatisfied than Lotty, though it’s only later that we learn the cause of her pain. Two other women join the crew: the beautiful but melancholic Lady Caroline Bramble (Samantha Lucas) and the hilariously snooty Mrs. Graves (Mary Burns), who, when unable to understand someone speaking Italian, declaims “I speak only the Italian of Dante.”

Act I is set in a dark, dreary and rain-soaked London, but following intermission the curtain is drawn to reveal a world of flowers, colorful furniture and, in the distance, mountains and the ocean. TOTR’s stage is tiny—I call it “Plays in a Box”—but set designer Jerry Miller, who also directed and plays Rose’s husband, Frederick—did a remarkable job of opening it up and evoking the spirit of San Salvatore, whose name suggests joyful salvation.

Hilsee, as Lotty, was absolutely delightful on the night I attended (Friday, June 6). Playing a woman who expects everything to turn out well and shares that optimism freely, she made us fall in love with her.

In some ways, Hurley-Miller had a more difficult role; her Rose is a complex woman who is hiding secrets, and Hurley-Miller let us see into her psyche while keeping her secret from the other characters.

As Lady Caroline, Lucas was terrific—and she’s only 16! She seemed much older in her role as a troubled “modern” woman (read: flapper) struggling to process a great loss in the war.

The male actors gave creditable performances in roles that were basically setups for the women. I especially enjoyed Andy Hafer as Anthony Wilding, the castle’s owner, who showed up mostly to flirt with the women and provide comic relief with Costanza the cook (a very funny Natalie Valencia).

When the men arrive at San Salvatore, the characters resolve their issues so that everybody can go home happy and in love. For the women, this means they have relationships with their men that are based on equality. And those who have experienced loss are able once again to smile at life.