Rebecca Mozo and Nisi Sturgis
in I Capture the Castle
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Rebecca Mozo and Nisi Sturgis
in I Capture the Castle
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Dodie Smith may be best known, if at all, as the author of the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but I Capture the Castle, now at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, proves she is also a playwright who can capture a lot of hearts.

The play -- which Smith adapted from her own 1948 novel -- follows two sisters who are living in a decrepit old castle in the English countryside as they fall in love and begin having a life of their own. Cassandra (Rebecca Mezo) is a budding author, and some of the play consists of her reading from her journal -- a touch that makes the play feel very modern. Her sister Rose (Nisi Sturgis) is beautiful and realistic; she's particularly frightened at the level of their poverty since their eccentric father, celebrated author James Mortmain (Matt Bradford Sullivan) has stopped writing. Their stepmother Topaz (Erika Rolfsrud), a former artist's model, is an eccentric sort who likes to "commune with nature" in the nude.

Everything changes when two wealthy American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton (Tony Roache and Josh Carpenter), show up to take possession of their inheritance -- the stately home nearby, and also the castle. While the work is a coming-of-age story for both girls, it's much more than just a romantic mix-up when Cassandra falls for Simon after he becomes engaged to Rose -- who is not in love with him.

The play also touches on faith, with a beautiful speech by the local vicar (John FitzGabbon) about listening for those whiffs of the divine. The play also takes Mortmain's writer's block very seriously, and it's a funny, touching surprise how the family and the new American friends, particularly the boys' mother, Mrs. Fox-Cotton (Wendy Barrie-Wilson) impel him to write again. The work also underscores the vital importance of family. Indeed, at times there seems to be a little too much going on, and at about three hours, it begins to feel long.

Harry Feiner's set design, depicting the inside of the stone castle kitchen, with rickety stairs leading up to the bedrooms, is a thing of wonder. And Hugh Hanson's costumes nearly steal the show -- in particular a blue evening dress worn by Rose in Act II.

Director Cameron Watson elicits great nuance and emotion from the cast, with no cost to the more brittle moments of humor. Mozo, who is pert and pretty, has a lot to do, what with serving as a kind of narrator through her journal and also enacting the lovelorn girl on the brink of womanhood -- and she pulls it off with aplomb. Sturgis plays Rose as only slightly less fanciful than Cassandra, as well as somewhat less earnest. Yet even when she seems to be most cold-blooded, you can't help liking her.

Both Roache and Carpenter have charm and appeal, though perhaps they are less distinctive than called for. (Neil is meant to be more rustic and outwardly American, Simon more refined.) Rolsfrud shows great vulnerability as well as poise, and Sullivan show's both Mortmain's eccentric genius along with a bit of menace. The smaller roles are also well done, particularly Maureen Stillman as librarian Mrs. Marcy, Kristen Kittel as buxom, well-meaning local girl Ivy Stebbins, and Mary Stewart as predatory photographer Leda Fox-Cotton.