Once or twice a year, an alternate reality appears for two brief weekends at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory campus in North Laurel, when staff members in the APL Drama Club devote their after-hours energy to performing plays.
This spring’s offering of “Blithe Spirit” — an escapist comedy written by British playwright Noël Coward just after his London apartment was destroyed by German bombs during World War II — marks the club’s 14th main stage production.
The show, which appeared first at the West End in London in 1941, set a record in nonmusical theater running for nearly 2,000 performances.
After the war, the film adaptation won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects in 1947. And “High Spirits,” the wildly popular Broadway musical based on “Blithe Spirit” that opened in New York City, was nominated for eight Tony’s including Best Musical in 1964.
In her program notes, APL Drama Club president and debuting director Katie Marcotte writes that loving science and the arts is not mutually exclusive. And that farcical comedy, such as “Blithe Spirit,” delivers an interlude from everyday life.
The troupe certainly fulfills her promise; the show at the Kossiakoff Center offers a wonderfully “spirited” evening filled with French door-slamming, ghostly special effects, high energy and easy laughter to APL staff, their families and the general public.
As the lights rise on a cool, rose-colored set appointed with charming set pieces (such as a period telephone and gramophone), the British living room of Charles Condomine (played by Kevin Piaskowski) appears basically as described in the script.
But although the Kossiakoff stage is designed for technical presentations and lacks the usual depth of a theater stage, shrewd set design — built by Adam Fosbury, Dave Zotian, Frank Marcotte and production manager Rebecca Koslover — uses lovely angles in the wall flats and the placement of furniture to open the space for the actors and improve sight lines for the audience.
Coward’s well-written tale revolves around Charles, a novelist who stages a séance in his drawing room as research for a book he’s writing about a homicidal spiritualist. Consequently, he finds himself haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (played by Madeline Fosbury).
As the lights rise, Charles’s current wife Ruth (Katie Samsock) and her new maid, Edith (Sarah Kirby) set a proper British tone as they prepare for the guests Charles has invited with clearly enunciated accents.
Stylish and practical as Ruth, Samsock and the skittish Edith, who is always in a hurry, start the comedy warming. Enter Charles, Dr. Bradman (Dave Zotian), his wife (Melanie Newbrough) and the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati (Sarah Robinson), and the troupe takes off running.
In Act 1, when the séance appears to be a failure in spite of Madame Arcati’s most hilarious efforts, the guests leave. But then Elvira’s ghost appears to Charles and begins instigating all kinds of trouble in a superficial romp that is beautifully paced to play’s end.
Attractively costumed by Rose Tringali, Marcotte’s cast of delightful characters delivers exciting performances and many, many chuckles.
As the bumbling Edith, Kirby’s skittish physical stage presence is always a riot. Samsock makes a strong and anchoring Ruth; her comic incredulity (when Charles tries to convince her Elvira is present) is particularly engaging.
Piaskowski also delivers a smooth and well prepared performance as the lead character being fought over and “haunted” by two temperamental wives; he creates excellent chemistry with both characters. And Fosbury as Elvira is as deliciously petulant as one could ask a disruptive spirit to be.
Ever pragmatic and down to earth, Zotian’s Dr. Bradman is a soothing influence. He and Newbrough, calm and agreeable as Mrs. Bradman, bring nicely contrasting characters to the mayhem.
And then there is the irrepressible Madame Arcati. Robinson rocks the role of the crackpot medium that Angela Lansbury says was one of the best roles she ever played on Broadway.
Beautifully staged, directed and enacted, the APL Drama Club’s lovable rendition of “Blithe Spirit” should leave audiences smiling, both at Coward’s wit and at the troupe’s obvious pleasure in performing it.
"Blithe Spirit" continues through Sunday, April 22, at the Kossiakoff Center on the campus of JHUAPL, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road., Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go to jhuapl.edu/drama.