SAINT LEONARD, Md. – Fascination with the occult has been prevalent within the mediums of stage and film since long before it was deemed culturally acceptable by society.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages in 1922 was one of the first notable film forays into the occult, but the genre dates back to much earlier on the stage. New Direction Community Theater (NDCT) in Southern Maryland continues this long-standing tradition with its current production of Bell, Book and Candle.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1950, Bell, Book and Candle is a comedy written by John Van Druten that is said to have been one of the inspirations behind the creation of the famously beloved television show Bewitched.
Later adapted in 1958 into an award-nominated film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak in the leading roles, the play has gone on to be produced on a multitude of stages around the world.
The story centers on a witch named Gillian Holroyd, who finds out that a rival from college is engaged to one of Gillian’s tenants named Shepherd Henderson. In an attempt to exact revenge on the rival, Gillian decides to cast a love spell on Shepherd. However, once he is under her spell, she begins to feel something for him – something that is forbidden amongst witches.
While this play does have other characters and subplots within the show, the story hinges on the chemistry between the two aforementioned characters. Didi Olney, as Gillian Holroyd, brought a softness to her character that helped to make Gillian truly sympathetic as the story progressed. Her bouts of emotion during the latter portion of the play were refreshingly authentic and felt as if they had been pulled from the depths of her being. While I have always enjoyed Olney’s work as a director at NDCT, her acting work on this show was particularly impressive.
Justin McCright as Shepherd Henderson brought the holler-inducing humor to this production that is crucial to its success. I saw McCright in a comedy last year where he also played the romantic lead, and his performance in this show has solidified my opinion that his talents are best served as such. His comedic physicality and timing is phenomenal, but it’s his ability to make you believe that he is unquestionably in love with the actress that he plays opposite of that seals the deal.
The set design and direction by Rick Thompson honors Van Druten’s original intent of creating a light 1950s comedy by sticking to what made the original play so successful. His choice to utilize an actual cat for the part of Pyewacket (adorably played by Vader Mervine) was a brave one that paid off with equal parts adorable and realism.
Thompson’s attention to detail with the set design is seen through the witchy accents found throughout the basic 1950s living room set. A witchy Christmas tree, spell ingredients, and black cat figurines.
His thoughtful use of a rotary phone and a pastel flower lamp helped to convey the period without it having to be obviously referenced. My favorite set piece by far was the custom-made magic-themed musical poster hanging on the wall.
Given the subject matter of this show, it’s perfect for this spooky time of year. McCright and Olney bring worthy performances that are utterly entertaining to watch. This is a show that would be best enjoyed by those that enjoy a romantic comedy with a side of magic. Its lore isn’t realistic to reality – and that’s the point.
It is pure escapism, and sometimes that’s precisely what we need an evening (or afternoon) of.
This show contains minor language and innuendo.
The approximate run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one brief intermission.
Bell, Book and Candle will be playing at the Long Beach Community Center at 5845 Calvert Blvd, St. Leonard, MD through November 5, 2022.
For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit NDCT’s website here.
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