It stars Mattie Hawkinson as the supernaturally sexy Gillian Holroyd, Thomas Vincent Kelly as the handsome square Shep, Susan Ruttan as Gillian’s devilishly odd aunt, Zachary Ford as Gillian’s brother, Nicky — a card-carrying warlock — and Leonard Kelly-Young as the easily-distracted writer, Sidney, who just happens to working, at the moment, on a book about witches.
“Ring the bell; close the book; extinguish the candle.” That’s the final sentence of the Catholic Church’s ritual of excommunication, and it’s where the title of the play comes from. Fortunately, the play has nothing to do with excommunication — which has never been the basis of successful comedy, either on stage or in the movies — and everything to do with witches, which have proven the second most popular class of imaginary humanoids, after vampires, in the American entertainment consciousness (zombies and werewolves are scarcely in the running).
In the past, particularly in the 17th century, witches were not viewed with the tolerant amusement that they receive today. On the contrary, if you were suspected of being one, you were in big trouble and were likely to be killed in some painful and horrifying manner.
After a particularly egregious example of mass hysteria, in which 19 residents of Salem, Mass., were hanged, the subject kind of disappeared (save the broomstick-riding harridan of Halloween) for 150 years, until Rene Clair brought out his second American film, I Married a Witch, with Veronica Lake and Fredric March.
The film both revived the Salem episode to our attention, and offered an entirely new take on the person of the witch herself. At the time, we were accustomed to the witch as a shrieking, cackling hag — think Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz — but after I Married a Witch, well, if Veronica Lake is a witch, then I’ll take two, and if you get any more in, give me a call. (This transvaluation of values was confirmed when Bell, Book, and Candle was filmed, with Kim Novak.)
The part about witches being beautiful and beguiling — and relatively harmless — was taken up by playwright Van Druten in 1950 in the comedy Bell, Book and Candle. It was so successful that it reset the entire witch paradigm, as well as spawning a number of television spin-offs such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. The part about the Salem witch trials being a colossal bummer was taken up by playwright Arthur Miller, and turned into a vehicle for an attack on the anti-communist hysteria of the era, in his 1953 play The Crucible.
In a nutshell provided by the Ensemble, here is how Bell, Book and Candle goes: “It’s 1950s Christmas in Manhattan. Gillian, a young, crafty and beguiling woman, works her charms on her handsome upstairs neighbor, Shepherd. He begins to fall for her, but there is a hitch — they come from two different worlds. She a witch and he’s a mortal. Moreover, if she falls in love she could lose her magical powers.”
It’s good that the Ensemble has not attempted to “update” the play, since the whole surrounding ethos — beatniks, repressed squares, apartment living, interfering, wise-cracking female relatives and so on — is specific to the 1950s, and would be rendered meaningless and pointless if transferred to a later time.
Bell, Book and Candle plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (with a special 4 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Dec. 8), running Nov. 29 through Dec. 16. Tickets are $40 to $65, with discounts available to seniors, students and groups of 10 or more; students and young adults (26 and under) are $20. For reservations and information, call the Ensemble box office at 805.965.5400 or click here.