There’s nary a sprig of mistletoe in sight, but Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey decks its halls nicely with a warmhearted winner for the holidays with Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle.” Best known for her “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” story, the British writer also crafted several trans-Atlantic stage hits of the 1930s. Why Smith’s own adaptation of her 1948 novel ran only briefly in the West End in 1954 is a mystery, since director Cameron Watson’s production — billed as the play’s East Coast premiere — reveals a gentle charmer with special appeal to the family crowd.
Narrated by 17-year-old Cassandra as she scribbles in her journal — “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” is her first entry — Smith’s comedy captures eight eventful months amid the bohemian Mortmain clan, who cheerfully reside in a dilapidated English castle in 1935.
Impoverished by their brilliant dad’s decade-long writer’s block, Cassandra and elder sister Rose share dreams of romance that come true, with seriocomic complications along the way, when two handsome, rich American brothers arrive in the neighborhood. (Novel was filmed by director Tim Fywell with Bill Nighy as the father in 2003.) Smith treats her episodic story in rich, often humorous detail, neatly melding fleeting scenes via Cassandra’s amusing narration. While the second act becomes crowded with developments, Smith’s whimsical but natural dialogue remains enjoyable, and her 14 characters are distinctive folk.
Rebecca Mozo’s spirited Cassandra subtly flowers into womanhood, her dimpled brunette ingenuousness contrasting well against blond Nisi Sturgis’ anxious Rose. Matt Bradford Sullivan’s aristocratic features and mildly dazed manner perfectly suit the siblings’ preoccupied father, while Erika Rolfsrud, flamboyantly garbed by designer Hugh Hanson, drolly flutters as the girls’ artsy-craftsy stepmom. Tony Roach and Josh Carpenter easily depict the Americans as golden boys, while Pressly Coker sturdily portrays a local admirer of Cassandra.
Choice smaller roles are delightfully rendered by a radiantly smiling Maureen Silliman as a dotty librarian, John FitzGibbon as a kindly vicar and Mary Stewart as a slinky vamp from London.
Watson, who directed the play’s U.S. premiere in Los Angeles in 2006, smoothly paces the action with effective musical touches by sound designer Michael Eisenberg. Everything happens upon designer Harry Feiner’s expansive, lofty setting for the kitchen of the Mortmains’ crumbling donjon, complete with fireplace, timbered staircase, stony arches, the occasional gargoyle and just a peek of the sisters’ bedroom above it.
Although the relatively large acting company probably makes “I Capture the Castle” a questionable venture for some theaters, Smith’s affectionate study of a colorful family is a genial play well worth discovery.