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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – The Shaw Festival’s version of “Enchanted April” is pure escapist theater, full of clever jokes and smart acting.

What sets it apart are the sets. Few plays draw such a sharp difference between time and place. In “April,” Act I plays out in the rainy clubs and drawing rooms of drab, depressing post-World War I London. In Act II, the sun comes out and dreams come true in a gorgeous tableau – a castle courtyard in sunny, romantic Italy.

While “Enchanted April” is indeed fun and fulfilling, the structure of the play is a little off. In adapting the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, playwright Matthew Barber divides his time almost evenly between England and Italy, giving a more than thorough setup for the unhappiness of Lotty and Rose, the two British housewives who see an ad in the Times for a castle for rent in Italy, “for those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.”

“That’s me!” shouts Lotty Wilton, played with infectious enthusiasm by Moya O’Connell. Of the two women, it is Lotty who needs a break the most. For Rose, the pain in her marriage is deeper, and she fears that what she needs is a breakup.

Tara Rosling expertly walks the line as Rose, a reserved woman who knows what she wants and what society expects. She spends the first act fending off Lotty’s urgings to rent the castle and, after she agrees, trying to get out of it.

But no one needs this trip more than Rose. Rounding out the party are Marla McLean as glamorous Lady Caroline, a gossip-generating party girl with a sad secret, and Donna Belleville as the suitably stuffy Mrs. Graves, more enamored of her late father’s famous, and dead, friends than of anyone in her company.

Lotty and Rose want a lot from their month in Italy, “To change what we have into what we wish for,” as Lotty puts it. The other two women have given up looking for dreams. Lady Caroline wants to get away from London society. Mrs. Graves is looking for warm weather, not warm company.

So, with all this baggage to be unpacked, the second act comes and goes in a rush.

As the castle by the sea literally unfolds on stage, the audience gasps. Designer William Schmuck wraps the courtyard and columns in flowers and greenery; lighting designer Kevin Lamotte paints it with healing sun and cooling shadow.

All too quickly, the setting works its magic on the women. Perhaps it is easier to write about misery than joy, but the change – their “translation,” as Lotty puts it – is less seen than “understood.” Almost before we’ve kicked our shoes off and slipped on our sandals, the ladies-only setting is filling up with men: the dashing owner of the castle, handsomely played by Kevin McGarry, and the husbands, played with energy and bewilderment by Jeff Meadows and Patrick Galligan.

The play departs in several ways from the popular 1991 film, but the spirit of love reborn or found again remains, and lingers after the curtain comes down.

theater review

Three stars

What: “Enchanted April”

Where: Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara- on-the-Lake, Ont.

When: Through Oct. 26

Tickets: $24-$110

Info: (800) 511-7429, www.shawfest.com

email: mmiller@buffnews.com