Just imagine what fun Noel Coward must have had writing "Blithe Spirit." It was 1941, World War II was raging and Great Britain was being bombed heavily. Coward felt he could best help the war effort by writing something that would lift people's spirits. The result was a brilliant comedy that in true Cowardesque fashion dealt with a serious issue -- death -- in a lighthearted and whimsical way.

The highly entertaining production of "Blithe Spirit" at 1st Stage is proof of what an intelligent and profound playwright Coward was, as it is every bit as funny now as when it was written. The play, set in 1941, begins with a novelist, Charles Condomine (Steven Carpenter), researching his next book by dabbling in the occult. The unexpected result is that he causes his last wife to return from the dead.

The ghost leads Charles to examine his devotion to his present wife, and sets the stage for some vintage Coward philosophizing about the real stuff of marriage.

Intelligently and skillfully directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, this "Blithe Spirit" captures the bubbly humor that Coward so deliberately embedded in his script. Without a sense of controlled silliness, the play wouldn't work at all, but Gardner has found a way to make the most outrageous elements of script take hold.

'Blithe Spirit'
» Where: 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean
» When: Through June 16
» Info: $15 to $25; 703-854-1856; 1ststagespringhill.org

She began by casting a man in a central role, that of Madame Arcati (Evan Crump), the medium engaged by the playwright to contact his dead wife. Crump plays Madame Arcati as slightly off-center, a dizzy presence who appears to be veering toward another astral plane at all times. Gardner's clever casting creates an undercurrent of bizarre humor every time Madame Arcati walks onstage.

Carpenter does an excellent job of building up a sense of the hysteria that surrounds the hapless Charles as his two wives clash and eventually conspire against him.

Liz Mamana is well-cast as Ruth, Charles' third wife. She is crisp, efficient and controlled, a thoroughly well-mannered lady of the manor. Dani Stoller is effective as Charles' second wife, Elvira, who is wild, sexy and quite the opposite of Ruth.

The cast is rounded out by Jenna Berk and Philip Hosford, who play visitors to the Condomines' home, and Maureen O'Rourke as a very funny, deadpan, nerve-wracked housemaid.

Steven Royal's set presents a well-appointed living room in Kent, whose wall of windows reveals bright blue skies and puffy white clouds. Royal's costumes are elegant clothes reflecting the styles of the 1940s.

The social observation of "Blithe Spirit" is always piquant and amusing. At 1st Stage it is delivered with energy, precision and wit.