There are string of whimsical or atmospheric plays from America’s mid-20th Century featuring eccentric families or slices from their poignant lives. They constitute a perennial canon of American plays… The Skin of Our Teeth, You Can’t take It With You, Harvey*, Our Town, Arsenic and Old Lace, etc….that are always popular with audiences and you can bet are being performed somewhere right now.
Add to this wonderful lexicon, The Curious Savage, by John Patrick, now playing at the Hale Center Theater Orem through Sept 21st. I’m happy that such a modern classic is receiving a production that will win a new generation of hearts. The Hale’s cast is superb all around. Though the play turns on an inheritance plot, what it’s about is a whole lot of love; and that makes a family. But the ever cheerful Mrs. Ethel P. Savage doesn’t have a lot to be cheerful about when it comes to her grasping adult children, who have just succeeded in getting their mother into a sanatorium called “The Cloisters”.
Karen Baird in the leading role as Mrs. Savage embodies such an open honesty of character that she quite endeared me to her. She can keep a secret, she says, for “about ten minutes”. I was most impressed by Baird’s ability to bring poignancy and humor to simple moments like “wanting a hat like this since I was 16”, while generously focusing on a wonderful menagerie of characters, making sure to let their stories be told while her own tale unfolds. The greatest gem she gives her new friends in The Cloisters – and us in the audience – is this one: “Don’t discredit your audience before you give them a chance to be kind.”
And what a sweet ensemble the residents make. They are wrangled in a relaxed poised performance by Bethany R. Woodruff as Miss Wilhelmina, the house nurse, who earnestly responds kindheartedly to the residents. I happen to know, also, that she does a perfect American accent. The reason that’s notable? Her own is Scottish. Her boss, Dr. Emmett, is played by local veteran actor Larson Holyoak in a seemingly effortless turn.
Bright as a penny, Fairy May (“stolen by gypsies”) is an overly-dramatic exaggerator too sweetly rendered by Heidi Smith Anderson to call it lying. “Competition exhausts me”. Her dramatics were tuned just right for the context of the play without distracting from the scene by going too much over the top. Anderson’s accomplishment is in giving us a balanced character that is both flighty and oddly touching.
Daniel Hess as Hannibal earns our sympathy as a terrible violinist with an aching need to please. He welcomes Mrs. Savage to the group. In turn, Mrs. Savage cracks the shell that Jeffrey, subtly played by Nick Grossaint, constructed around himself.
Tracy Whitlock as Florence and Melanie Wilkins as Mrs. Paddy are not given a lot to do as characters, but both give us rounded portraits with some rich chuckles thrown in.
As the greedy grown-ups, the Savage siblings provide the points by which the story advances. They storm into the sanatorium with unctuous smiles and black hearts. Reese Phillip Purser as Titus is blustery and bigger than life in his role as a senator with a sonorous voice, but reduced to tantrums by Mom’s intransigence. Alexis Boss, as Lily Belle, belies the sweetness of her name. Funny and frustrated, she is at least honest about her motives as she goes toe-to-toe with Mom. Beware of her teeth! And what is going on with Howard Fullmer as Samuel? His attitude alone is hilarious. I was sure he’d sneak off with pieces of the furniture.
Sure-footed, and well crafted, this cast doesn’t miss a beat. The director, Laurie Harrop-Purser, is to be congratulated for drawing steadied, assured performances all around from the actors in a well-paced series of scene arcs.
Need any more reason to see this production? Gladly provided: This is a professional caliber, cleverly written comedy of modern manners and culture most apt to today – even though set in the mid-20th century. Hale Center Theater Orem definitely goes the extra mile, as I’ve seen them do in previous productions. The production doesn’t just look good – it looks great, costumes by Maryann Hill and set by Bobby Swenson included. Especially great work is beautifully rendered by Hill’s authentic looking costumes; in many cases, there are multiple costume changes for the same character. The set is detailed and appropriate, with Hale’s in-the-round seating giving every audience member a good look.
I smiled all the way through The Curious Savage. Ultimately wise and winning, Mrs. Savage is a wonderful person to get to know! I’m grateful for this chance to update my own cultural literacy. You should get a proper introduction at the Hale Center Theater in Orem as soon as you can. You will be charmed with lovely performances and a memorable evening.
The Curious Savage
Hale Orem Center Theater
225 West 400 North, Orem, Utah 84057
Box Office: 801.226.8600
Aug 16 – Sept 21, 2013 Mondays through Saturdays
Evening performances at 7:30 PM
Saturday matinees at 3:00 PM