Watching the enjoyable Theatre Guild of Webster Groves’ production of John Van Druten’s play Bell, Book and Candle, in which the central character is a witch – really, a witch, who can cast spells and such – I began to wonder, “How much of an effort does it take to suspend one’s disbelief and believe, even in a fiction, that practicing witches exist in our day and that they can play a significant and believable role, one that involves our emotions, in a play set in our time?” Then I realized that we have been believing in the fictional reality of witches all our lives, starting in childhood with the Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel and all the others, and the witches of Oz, and even witches as central characters in popular TV sitcoms?
So I think we are well trained to settle into watching this sitcom-type play and to believe for its duration that Gillian Holroyd, an attractive and intelligent young woman living in Manhattan in 1950, could cast spells and that they would work. We see her do it, waving her hands over an object while reciting a spell, sometimes reading from a large, obviously ancient book, or holding up her black cat Pyewacket and instructing her in whatever language it is that spirits understand and the spirits then doing what she has asked them to do. It helped that Gwen Den Houter, who played Gillian, obviously believed in what she was doing and was completely convincing throughout in the full range of emotions that her character’s powers put her through.
As a young woman, Gillian is interested in attractive young men. As a witch, she cannot fall in love with them, but she does like to spend time with them. When she notices that an attractive young man has moved into the apartment above hers, she contemplates how she might make his acquaintance.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, her Aunt Queenie Holroyd lives in the same building. Aunt Queenie is also a witch. So is Gillian’s sister Nicky Holroyd, who lives nearby. It runs in the family, this witch thing, inherited through the generations back to Salem, yes, which they survived, and beyond.
Gillian mentions to Aunt Queenie that this young man has moved into the building and she’s interested in meeting him. Next thing you know, Shepherd Henderson is at her door, asking if he can use her phone to report a problem he discovered with his phone when he got home from work.
Aunt Queenie has been at work, casting spells to unlock Henderson’s door, get into his apartment, and cast a spell on his phone. Mission accomplished.
Now Gillian has met the young man, a very nice young man, she decides. So she casts a spell, and Henderson suddenly finds himself in love with her.
Henderson is in publishing. He’s interested in the work of a well-known writer whose work he might like to publish. But he’s never met him, and the writer moves in circles somewhat above the circles that a young publisher moves in. Yet within a day or two the writer shows up at Gillian’s apartment when Henderson is there. It’s wonderful what you can accomplish when you have a black cat assistant.
The work with this writer, who is interested in doing something on the “witches” of Manhattan – he has heard that some people gather in covens and do witch-type things — leads to problems in Gillian’s relations with Henderson, who believes the whole witch thing is just people having fun. But Gillian grows more attracted to Henderson. Is she falling in love with him? As a witch, she can’t fall in love with him. But she wants to.
Is it time for bell, book and candle? Shakespeare uses the phrase in his play King John, “Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back, When gold and silver becks me to come on,” a reference going back to medieval times to the ceremony used to exorcise demons and witches. Must Gillian somehow exorcise the witch part of herself to have true love and a life together with Henderson?
Playwright Druten explained that as the play took shape, he asked himself what constitutes witchcraft, “and I felt the answer lies in the fact that witches primarily seem to exist for their own self-gratification. However, one has to stop living in terms of ‘self’ if aspects of love are ever to be realized.”
Brittiney Henry directed the production with care in balancing the comic and serious elements. Harry Kolmer’s Shepherd Henderson was occasionally a little bewildered by what was going on but was quite clear in his struggles to make sense of it all as he coped with his love for Gillian. Judy Moebeck as Aunt Queenie was quite properly like a commedia dell’arte comic type. Claire Hough was lively as sister Nicky, Jeff Lovell as the writer Sidney Redlitch was mostly bewildered by what he found himself in the middle of, and Pyewacket Ceradsky was quietly mysterious as Pyewacket.
Andee Silverman Wolfe was the stage manager. Director Henry designed the set, a little more elaborate than usual for TGWB, with a raised main entrance to the apartment, giving her as director some added blocking opportunities; Mark Moebeck constructed the set. Henry and Barb Mulligan designed the costumes while consulting with Abby Pastorelo. Henry and Debby Lovell managed props, Henry designed sound, and the efficient lighting was by Nathan Olvey and Robert Tierney. Jennifer and Libby Ceradsky were on Pywacket Patrol.
A brief note on theatre history: Playwright John Van Druten, who was regularly produced through the middle of the twentieth century, is not well remembered today. However, one of his creations continues to appear on stages almost daily. He was the first to adapt Christopher Isherwood”s Goodbye to Berlin for the stage, with the apt title I Am a Camera, which led New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr to respond with the famous punning three-word review “Me no Leica.” But Joe Masteroff used Druten’s play, along with Isherwood’s short stories, when he composed the book for the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. Whenever Cabaret is performed, audiences enjoy a piece of John Van Druten’s work, and I believe his estate may still be gathering royalties.
And I enjoyed Theatre Guild of Webster Groves’ production of John Van Druten’s play Bell, Book and Candle.
Photo by Robert Stevens