SAN FRANCISCO. How do you know when you are truly in love? When Gillian lost her powers, she remembered the warning. Don’t mix romance with witchcraft: sparks fly but with mortal consequences for witches.
As Act one opens in Bell, Book and Candle at the San Francisco Playhouse, Gillian ponders the more mundane question: How will I get through the holidays? In the fifties, when other women wear aprons and flash Doris-Day smiles, Gillian wears tight pants and flashes lightening. But this Christmas Eve, she paces her chic Manhattan apartment with little holiday spirit.
Gillian Holroyd (Lauren English) wants more out of life. She turns to her feline familiar, Pyewacket, and commands the tall wooden cat to “send me someone interesting.” Deep down she is thinking of handsome neighbor, publisher Shep Hendersen (William Connell).
A knock on the door interrupts a seductive rendition of “Santa Baby”—Boo doo bee doo, Santa Baby, hurry down the chimney tonight.
Shep stumbles into the apartment, mysteriously derailed on his way to meeting his girlfriend. Perplexed, he takes a seat, thinking he must have stopped by to complain about the tenant who chants and makes noxious smelling stew. Seeing his shopping bags, he remembers and excuses himself to call his girlfriend. Overhearing the girlfriend’s name, Gillian realizes it’s her college nemesis who circulated poison-pen letters about her. Impulsively, she casts a love spell to make Shep think only of her. Shep is immediately smitten with Gillian. They fall to it on the lipstick red sofa, then onto the round ottoman, large enough for Gillian to straddle her man and cover him with kisses.
In Act two, we watch Gillian struggle with her conscience. Shep, still happily ensconced in her apartment, gives Gillian a locket, a family heirloom. Love is a force she has yet to contend with.
To work her way out of the mess, she confesses to Shep that she bewitched him. He seeks the help of the witch Bianca de Passe and is finally released from the enchantment.
The tables turn against the seductress. The play’s title, taken from the Catholic Church’s excommunication rite, provides an interesting subtext. For the offense of falling in love, Gillian is banished, shunned and stripped of her supernatural powers.
Will true love prevail? Will Gillian and Shep be reunited?
In a 1950s romantic what other ending is possible? British playwright John Van Druten was a witty, urbane observer who penned a series of hits first in London’s West End then on Broadway. In the early 1950s, Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison appeared in the Broadway production of Bell, Book and Candle. Then came the movie version (1958) starring Kim Novak and James Stewart. The story is also widely known from the 1960s TV show Bewitched.
On opening night, after a fine performance, cast members mingled with theater patrons in the ornate lobby. Lauren English’s fiery red hair was easy to spot as she sipped champagne, ringed by admirers. Her character discovered a more powerful source of magic, a good message for this holiday season, especially when we exited the theater to Union Square and a glowing 83-foot-tall Christmas tree.
Bell, Book and Candle by John Van Druten opened December 8, 2012 and runs through Jan 19, 2013 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets: 415.677.9596.
Book online for $10 off, use the code BELL10.
—by Donna Peck. Photography by Jessica Palopoli