Bewitching ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ at San Francisco Playhouse

Courtesy PhotoLauren English and William Connell are enticing in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of the 1950s classic “Bell

Courtesy PhotoLauren English and William Connell are enticing in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of the 1950s classic “Bell

It may be an old chestnut, but playwright John Van Druten’s romantic comedy “Bell, Book and Candle,” adapted for a 1958 film starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, comes to surprisingly luminous life in San Francisco Playhouse’s current staging.

Bored and restless witch Gillian is attracted to a neighbor, Shep, in her Manhattan, N.Y., high-rise. When she discovers he’s engaged to her college nemesis, she can’t resist using her magical powers to seduce him.

Witches, it seems, cannot actually fall in love, or cry real tears. But eventually Gillian finds herself prey to both human passion and human pain when she indeed does fall for the Muggle.

Gillian’s journey toward an authentic emotional life is beautifully depicted by Lauren English, daughter of the play’s director, Bill English (also the company’s artistic director).

From the moment the lights go up, every fiber of her body seems to exude an exquisite indolence. She’s flirtatious and sexual, yet subtly aloof, even genuinely puzzled by Shep’s spell-induced ardor.

When, in the second act, she succumbs to the pitiable state of a rejected woman, the transition, enhanced by an obvious change in costume and hairdo, feels deeply internal.

As is usual for this family-run company, the ensemble is seamless, with Zehra Berkman as Gillian’s mischievously wacky Aunt Queenie; Scott Cox as Gillian’s flamboyant (and obviously gay) warlock brother; Louis Parnell as the alcoholic, self-declared magic expert and writer; and newcomer William Connell as a particularly charming Shep, with a toothy grin, bubbling with boyish glee as he finds himself head, to his own bemusement, over heels.

Director English also designed the spare, elegant, mid-century modern set, complete with velvety-red, curved sectional sofa and ottoman, the Chrysler Building looming outside the large picture window and a glowing moon diagonally traversing the dark sky.

Pyewacket, Gillian’s eerie familiar, is an Egyptian-esque cat statue set center stage, with eyes that glow on and off.

Brendan Aanes’ sound (with foreboding special effects and recordings such as “Santa Baby,” “It’s Witchcraft” and “I Put a Spell on You”), Kurt Landisman’s dramatic lighting and Abra Berman’s period-perfect costumes — especially for glamorous Gillian and bohemian Queenie — make for an integrated, beautifully designed production.

Most important of all, director and cast mine Van Druten’s script for its inherent poignancy with grace and with skill, and without ever losing the comedy.

artsBellentertainmentJimmy Stewart

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Lowell High School is considered an academically elite public school. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Students denounce ‘rampant, unchecked racism’ at Lowell after slurs flood anti-racism lesson

A lesson on anti-racism at Lowell High School on Wednesday was bombarded… Continue reading

Scooter companies have expanded their distribution in neighborhoods such as the Richmond and Sunset districts. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA board signs off on changes to scooter permit program

Companies will gete longer permits, but higher stakes

A health care worker receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images/TNS)
City sets ambitious goal to vaccinate residents by June

Limited supply slows distribution of doses as health officials seek to expand access

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden arrive at Biden's inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021, in Washington, DC.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images/TNS)
Joe Biden issues call for ‘unity’ amidst extreme partisan rancor

‘I will be a president for all Americans,’ he says in inauguration speech

MARIETTA, GA - NOVEMBER 15: Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff (R) and Raphael Warnock (L) of Georgia taps elbows during a rally for supporters on November 15, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia. Both become senators Wednesday.  (Jenny Jarvie/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Vice President Harris swears in senators Padilla, Warnock, Ossoff

New Democratic senators tip balance of power in upper legislative house

Most Read