Love is an unfamiliar and even forbidden emotion for a witch, according to John Van Druten’s small coven in Bell, Book and Candle, a 1950s romantic comedy, set in a New York City apartment, now playing through October 28 at Granite Theatre. If a witch – or warlock, for that matter – is to fall in love, the witch in question will lose their powers. When 20-something (in appearance in human years, at least) witch Gillian Holroyd puts a spell on her upstairs neighbor and book publisher Shepherd “Shep” Henderson, she does so partly out of her own attraction to him and partly out of spite to her rival and Steph’s current love interest Merle Kittridge (who is spoken often in the play but never seen on stage.)
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What starts as a strong physical relationship between Gillian and Steph becomes more serious when they find themselves spending nearly every waking moment together for the initial two weeks of their relationship. A stack of unread work assignments begin to stack on his desk, Steph reports as he can’t pry himself away from his new love interest.
Whether because of the spell or not, Steph finds himself proposing marriage to Gillian who is at a loss for words. She simply does not have the power to admit to “loving” Steph, for fear that a confession of such will lead to her losing her witch powers. Yet, she cannot deny that this “human” feeling of love is growing inside her.
Gillian’s understanding aunt, Miss Holroyd, played with curiosity and ease by Beth Jespon, Granite’s Associate Artistic Director, and her brother Nicky Holroyd are two sounding boards for Gillian’s angst and insights throughout the show. Nicky, played by Granite newcomer Warren Usey, has his own motivations when he sees Henderson’s book publishing business as an opportunity for himself. This causes a conflict with his sister, who fears that Nicky’s promotion of a “tell all” book on the witch world (even with some of the names changed – to protect the innocent – or perhaps the guilty?) will reveal too much that she wants shared with Steph about the ways of the witch.
Eventually, the truth about the Holroyds is revealed and while Steph doesn’t believe it at first, eventually he is convinced and does not take it so well. At this point, Gillian realizes she truly must have been in love for some time because otherwise, how could she feel the pain of heartbreak? Her aunt offers a compassionate shoulder for Gillian to cry on while brother Nicky is less than impressed with the humanity growing within his sister.
The producer of this show and Granite’s Artistic Director David Jepson has a few comedic scenes in the second act as Sidney Redlitch, an important author and associate of Nicky. Brian Olsen is quite likable as Seth, the everyday man who finds himself caught up with an unexpected romance with quirky in-laws.
A sublime performance comes from Clemmie the cat, who must be one of the most well-behaved stage animals in the world. Clemmie has several scenes as the mystical Pyewacket, an important character, and the cute black feline was well behaved and seemingly engaged in the action all evening. Clemmie was not at all phased from appearing on stage and the presence of a true cat (rather than some type of robot, puppet or stuffed animal) really did add to the festivities and the magic of the theatre.
However, it must be stated that this show really belongs to Ricci Mann as Gillian herself, who has quite a bit to play with, in a character that has a great arc from the full-on witch, to an enamored lover, to the broken-hearted and nearly human. Mann plays all these transitions with charm and emotional integrity, neither over-stating the emotional bullet points or, even worse, by being too stoic.
Credit to Director Anna Convery for bringing together a terrific show and as usual at the Granite, a great set and stage design, lends itself to a believable and charming interpretation of Gillian’s New York City apartment, circa 1950s.
Tickets to the Granite Theater’s Bell, Book and Candle can be purchased here.