LENOX -- To open its 29th season, Shakespeare & Company is serving a sparkling aperitif in the form of ``Enchanted April." Light, sprightly, and refreshing, this old-fashioned play will offer few surprises even to those who haven't read the 1922 novel or seen the 1991 film. But the expert cast, lovely design work, and gentle themes of rediscovered joy make for a charming evening of summer theater.
The scene opens in gloomy London, four years after World War I has cost a million British lives. On a rainy day, at her women's club, frowsy Lotty Wilson happens across an ad offering an Italian castle for lease. ``Wisteria and sunshine" -- it's all the encouragement she needs to take an unprecedented leap, plunk down her carefully hoarded nest egg, and entice three other women to join her for the promised month of enchantment.
As is the way with such naturalistic fables, the four housemates are the unlikeliest of sisters: Besides Lotty, there's the angelic Rose Arnott, whom she knows from church; the chiseled-granite widow Mrs. Graves; and the bright young modern, Lady Caroline Bramble, who graciously allows her companions to address her merely as ``Lady Caroline."
For all their differences -- and again this is typical of fairy tales -- each is shadowed, in her own way, by sorrow and loss. It is the job of the plot, transparent as it is, to dispel the shadows with Italian sunshine, to bring flowers into bloom after all that rain, and, as Lotty explains in her sweetly nostalgic opening monologue, ``to build a bridge between our befores and afters."
Their ``befores" include a couple of difficult husbands -- one patriarchal, one philandering -- a few lost loves, and a secret or two. And the ``afters"? You know how fairy tales end.
But we have such fun getting there. Diane Prusha makes Lotty a frazzled, frumpy, ditzy, dotty delight, not quite sure when life started to pass her by but determined to grasp it again when she gets the chance.
From the minute she lays eyes on Tod Randolph's reserved, beatific Rose, we know Rose's timidity won't stand a chance against Lotty's vigor. We know, because we've already succumbed ourselves.
As for Lady Caroline, Corinna May brings a bittersweet tinge to her bright gaiety; we know, as we should, that her brittle veneer of cynical wit conceals something quieter and more interesting. Elizabeth Ingram rounds out the quartet with a superbly difficult Mrs. Graves; her gradual softening and warming under the Italian sun shows, more clearly than anything, the way these women are each finding their way back to full and vibrant life.
One pleasant touch is that the husbands aren't just straw men, set up to keep their women down. They get their chance to transform, too, and believably take it, thanks to layered performances by Dave Demke and Malcolm Ingram, along with a nice turn by Seth Powers as the castle's owner. It would take a lot to steal scenes in such company, but Rachel Siegel, as the volatile maid Costanza, pulls it off.
And all the characters look wonderful on Rachel Gordon's flowery set, particularly as their clothes (thanks to delicate, sophisticated design by Govane Lohbauer) grow lighter, looser, and more free. So do their hearts, and so do ours.