Picture: 'Enchanted April'

Rose (Elizabeth Dean, left) and Lotty (Melanie Whipple) plan a holiday to Italy in "Enchanted April" (Tom Hurst / March 17, 2013)

At the beginning of the second act of "Enchanted April," Mad Cow Theatre changes the set before the audience's eyes. The dreary palette of grim England gives way to color, light, a riot of flowers. Even the grimy brick pillars suddenly turn into graceful marble columns.

This metamorphosis does not happen during intermission; director Aradhana Tiwari stages it during the play itself. There's a simple reason why it's monumentally effective: It's important.

For "Enchanted April" is a play about transformation. And transforming oneself doesn't happen during some sort of intermission from life — it can only occur during the action, while we go about the business of being alive.

Mad Cow's production, cleverly lilting and surprisingly funny, charmingly drives that thought home. Douglas Huston's scenic design, Allen Overlander's lighting and Tiwari's sound work together to clearly delineate drizzly England, gloomy land of umbrella-wielding automatons, from vibrant Italy.

In "Enchanted April," dreamy English housewife Lotty (Melanie Whipple) spies an newspaper ad offering rental of an Italian castle for a month. Weary of her mundane existence with a distant husband, she ropes reserved Rose (Elizabeth Dean) into a plan to split the rental cost with her.

But the ladies can't come up with the required 60 pounds — a large sum in 1922 — so they find two other women willing to split the bill and join them. All four, as it turns out, have experienced loss, and all four have something to learn about living.

Matthew Barber adapted "Enchanted April" from Elizabeth von Arnim's 90-year-old novel; many will remember the 1992 film. But anyone familiar with chick-lit will realize pretty quickly that plenty of happy endings are in store. It's the life the actors breathe into their characters' journeys that is thrilling to see.

Whipple is less a breath of fresh air, more a gust of giddy optimism as she casts off her shackles of gloom. Dean undergoes the biggest transformation as she literally lets her hair down.

As their companions, Piper Patterson lets the fragility of young Lady Caroline peep out from under her hard, modern exterior. Karel K. Wright, as matronly Mrs. Graves, brings an extra deliciously comic twinkle to her upper-crust battle-axe with a heart of gold.

All manage to avoid stumbling into cliché. As the frustrated Italian servant to the ladies, Becky Eck comes closest to clowning, but it's deliberate counterpoint to the ladies' Britishness — and darn funny, too.

Spring is a time of renewal. Let "Enchanted April" refresh your soul.

'Enchanted April'

What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of the Matthew Barber comedy

Length: 2:20, including intermission

Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Monday, April 8; 2:30 pm. Sundays

Tickets: $27-$34; $25-$32 students and seniors; $15 on April 8

Call: 407-297-8788

Online: Madcowtheatre.com