It’s time for the Ensemble Theater Company to put on its big holiday show, and what can be more seasonal than… witches? With “Bell, Book and Candle,” opening tonight, you can have both yuletide fun and the casting of spells. This 1950 Broadway play from John Van Druten later got made into a Hollywood film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, their only other on-screen team-up apart from in “Vertigo,” along with Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacks. Its mixture of romantic comedy and witchcraft influenced the show “Bewitched” six years later, and its domestic nature still gets played out in shows like “Charmed.”
The setting is Manhattan, circa 1950, and it’s Christmas time. Gillian (Mattie Hawkinson) is the young woman who is working her charms on her upstairs neighbor Shepherd (Thomas Vincent Kelly, last seen here in “Opus”). And “charms” is right: she’s a witch, and he doesn’t know it yet. But there’s also a rule — perhaps it’s in the back of a book of spells, who knows — that if a witch falls in love, she could lose all her powers. Gillian has two relatives to help her through this troubling time: Aunt Queenie (Susan Ruttan), also a witch, and Gillian’s brother Nicky (Zachary Ford). Also on hand is Sidney (Leonard Kelly-Young) a crazy writer who is working on a book about witchcraft. Guest director Brian Shnipper is set to work this all up into a magical holiday brew.
“My character is an inveterate snoop. I’m the Duddy Kravitz of the play,” says Ms. Ruttan, veteran of both stage and television. “I’m interested in furthering any romantic situation.”
Ms. Ruttan was jonesing to get back into theater after a hectic television schedule and contacted her agent to get her something juicy.
“I felt that this was the perfect fit for me,” she says. “But it’s hard. In television you do a bit at a time. You rehearse, say your lines, and then go home and learn the scene for the next day. But this is different. I am doing extracurricular work, running lines every night.”
Ms. Ruttan may be best known as the secretary Roxanne on “L.A. Law,” but she also had a blast playing the wife to Brian Dennehy’s Jack Reed character in a series of TV movies.
“I found acting by accident,” she says. “It was a place of great emotional support for me. It got my through a very hard time in my life, and I love it. I love the whole process of acting.”
But, she says, the television grind was getting to her, so she picked up Backstage, found a play to audition for, and came out of it feeling herself again. Now, she says, one play a year is going to be her therapy. And playing Aunt Queenie, a witch who is at heart a matchmaker, is a delight.
But, logic holds, if Aunt Queenie is successful, then she’ll cause Gillian to lose her powers? “At least that’s what they say,” Ms. Ruttan says.
But then, logic holds again, how will you make more witches?
“Well you can have sex!” Ms. Ruttan says with a laugh. “Sex is not only allowed, but it is encouraged!”
‘Bell, Book & Candle’
When: Through Dec. 16 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun., 4 p.m. matinee Dec. 8
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara
Information: 965-5400 or www.ensembletheatre.com