Playwright: Matthew Barber, based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. At: Idle Muse Theatre Company at Rivendell Theatre, 5775 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets: 773-340-9438; www.idlemuse.org; $20. Runs through: Sept. 8
England is an island nation, located 1500 miles closer to the Arctic circle than the United States' northernmost border, making for cool temperatures, high humidity, heavy rains and thick fogs. This climate, unsurprisingly, has spawned a wealth of literature premised on the therapeutic effects of warm, sunny regionsGreece, or southern France, but most frequently Italy, the seat of European Enlightenment. In the bleak February of 1922, with the British empire staggering under the aftermath of the first World War, who could resist an advertisement in the local newspaper offering rental of a castle in the Lombardy region whose owner promises them "sunshine and wisteria?"
Certainly not the four women who pool their pin money to cover the lease on the beckoning fantasy retreat. Not Lottie Wilton and Rose Arnott, two Hampstead matrons so psychologically estranged from their husbands that people mistake them for widows. Not heiress Lady Caroline Bramble, her Jazz Age conviviality masking sorrow over the loss of a beloved soldier-boy. Not the straitlaced Mrs. Fisher Graves, contentedly surrounding herself with memories of happier days. These ladies may be strangers when they embark on their adventure, but under prodding from the optimistic Lottie, each blossoms like the flowers of the lush countryside, their vigor renewed and faces turned toward the lighta spiritual renaissance soon infecting the unhappy spouses, invited to share in their wives' newly found happiness. Restoration is not just for the married, eitherdid I mention that the castle's landlord is a handsome young bachelor?
Elizabeth von Arnim's novel, as adapted by Matthew Barber, is a favorite production during the winter months, when summery reminders are most needed, making the Idle Muse Theatre Company's decision to stage their play in the dog days of August a somewhat daring proposition. Redemption is welcome in any season, however, and Anglophile romantics looking to stop and smell the you-know-what one more time before the onset of hibernal darkness will leave bathed in the sororal camaraderie generated by the ensemble dynamic of Elizabeth MacDougald as the ebullient Lottie, Mara Kovacevic as the pious Rose, Catherine Hermes as the melancholy Caroline and Maggie Speer as the formidable Mrs. Graves, along with Jean Waller's forthright housekeeper (who speaks no English, but still steals her every scene).
Those of scholarly bent might also want to take a look at the life of Elizabeth von Arnim, an author as bold and audacious as her plucky heroines.