The playbill has a lot of interesting information on the era of the play, which was written during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Contemporary audiences can connect with Grandpa Vanderhof's (Joneal Joplin) views on taxes (he doesn't pay them because he doesn't know what he's getting) and the business world (he just walked away 35 years earlier to do what he pleased). He mentions immigration, another hot button issue of our own time, and one illustrated in the play by Russian royalists, Boris Kolenkhov (hilariously depicted by Anderson Matthews) and the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Barbara Kingsley). Kolenkhov is younger daughter, Essie Carmichael's (Stephanie Cozart) ballet instructor. The fact that Kolenkhov is crazy (funny crazy, not scary crazy) and Essie has no talent don't matter at all.
Essie dances around the house eternally making candies served from a human skull. Her husband, Ed (Jamie LaVerdiere) peddles Essie's treats around the neighborhood. He is a good natured simpleton with a printing press that eventually gets him in hot water, a penchant for the xylophone and mask-making. Essie's sister, Alice (Amelia McClain), is the “Marilyn Munster” of the bunch: She doesn't seem eccentric, she has a normal job and is being courted by the boss's son, Tony Kirby (Benjamin Eakeley). Carol Schultz as Penny Sycamore is a supremely ditzy mother to the girls, wife to Paul (Tony Campisi) and daughter of Grandpa Vanderhof. Even Penny calls him “Grandpa,” not “Father.” This seems to emphasize his role as generic patriarch, the elder of the family who receives love and respect in his own home, an enviable position.
Paul Sycamore's hobby is fireworks, and he is assisted by Mr. De Pinna (Scott Schafer). They work in the basement, and the little firecracker we see is like Chekhov's gun, which does what it's supposed to at the end of Act II. The Sycamore's collect objects AND people. Susie Wall has a funny turn as a drunk, down-at-heels actress Penny meets on a bus and brings home to “audition” for a part in one of her plays. Writing plays has been her avocation for the last eight years, ever since a typewriter was delivered to the home by mistake. Previously (and briefly again during the play) she painted, and her final unfinished work of Mr. De Pinna as the discus thrower is revived with the toga-clad De Pinna continuing as her model. Grandpa raises snakes in the dining room, collects stamps, attends commencements, and visits with the neighborhood policeman who he talked into following his own dream after graduating from medical school.
Rheba (Rachel Leslie), the maid and less than gifted cook, and her boyfriend, Donald (Scott Whitehurst), round out the group. Donald is on “relief,” the only direct reference to the Depression, but he is nattily dressed and resents the time (about a half hour a week) he has to stand in line to get his check. They veer toward stereotype, though Rheba is well-spoken, and they are valued members of the family.
Grandpa's tax evasion catches up with him, providing some dramatic tension, but the Deus ex Machina had to be appealing to contemporaneous audiences. Further, Alice doesn't accept Tony's marriage proposal at first because she is afraid their families won't get along, and she is very attached to hers. He convinces her to agree to marry him though, and they arrange to get them all together for a dinner. The whole family is excitedly preparing for the visit from Tony and his parents (Jeffrey Hayenga and Kingsley) but are surprised by the company arriving a day early as they are going about the monkey business that comprises a normal day. Mayhem ensues.
Acts I and II are charming. The Sycamores, then the Sycamores with the Kirbys provide some excellent comic bits. The wit and wisdom of Grandpa combined with the hijinks perpetrated by the others make for a lot of fun. But Act III, even at just under a half hour, seems pat and it drags. Kingsley as the Duchess-turned-waitress does her best to insert some life into the proceedings, but for me, at least, it just didn't happen. Most damaging to the play is that, at this point in the unpredictable Vanderhof house, the action becomes predictable.
The set is a marvel. As Woolf writes in the Director's Notes, you feel like you could move in. A reproduction of the late-Victorian painting “Flaming June,” a recumbent young woman in a bright orange dress hangs over the fireplace, a fitting household goddess, and there are too many other interesting objects to begin to mention. The 18 actors (a small cast for a Kaufman and Hart play, we're told) have plenty of room to move around. Credit John Ezell. Elizabeth Covey's costumes, Peter Sargent's lights and Rusty Wandall's sound all enhance the look and feel of the production.
I enjoyed seeing this show, and particularly with this cast, especially Joplin, Schultz, and Matthews. And, As Grandpa observes, “Life's kinda beautiful if you just let it come to you.” It's a pleasant way to kick off another season at The Rep.