KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 1, 1998
Who charms the husk right off of the corn? — Auntie Mame. Not the singing matron, but the original eccentric, who made her first unforgettable appearance in Patrick Dennis’ 1954 novel of the same name. The book became a hit Broadway play, then an Academy Award-winning movie and later a megamusical.
Now, North Coast Rep’s new artistic director, the broadly talented Sean Murray, has chosen as his first production the non-musical comic play about the wacky, whimsical flapper/bohemian who takes an E-ticket ride through multiple husbands and a stomach-churning run of financial highs and lows. In the witty adaptation by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Auntie Mame is a veritable force of nature, an unstoppable hurricane that blows around the world.
She globetrots from the Big Apple to an ole Southern plantation, climbs the Matterhorn (where she loses a beloved husband), rides sidesaddle through a foxhunt, befriends the rich, the famous, the weird, the wild and the downtrodden, and drags her young orphaned nephew through it all, trying to teach him how to turn life into one helluva trip. It’s still a worthy lesson — and great fun to go along for the ride.
What a joyful, rollicking, jubilant way to begin the summer, and the theater’s 17th season! Sean Murray has struck gold — with his endlessly imaginative direction, crackerjack cast and impeccable comic timing. It’s a near-perfect production, marred only by sluggish scene changes that stall the delirious pace. Resident designer Marty Burnett has risen to the challenge of multiple short scenes in scores of far-reaching locales, using a turntable, period slide projections, and a lovely, layered Art Deco stage-framing border. Both he and Murray could’ve used a lot bigger playing space to flex their prodigious imaginations, but they make everything fit just fine.
There are so many delights in this production. The chameleonlike cast of 14, dressed in Lorrie Blackard’s never-ending array of gorgeous costumes, portrays about 50 odd and assorted characters, including young Bix Bettwy’s charmingly poised juvenile Patrick, and Patrick McBride’s earnest grown-up Patrick, Jim Chovick’s hilarious turn as a monstrous Southern matriarch, James Webb’s expansive Southern oil-man, Dagmar Krause Fields’ competitive actress, Sara Tobin’s bitchy Southern belle and airhead Yankee debutante, and the scene-stealing, uproarious Myra McWethy as the geeky Agnes Gooch.
But center-stage belongs to Sandra Ellis-Troy, who was born to play this role. She artfully conveys Mame’s eccentricity, elegance, deviousness, soft-heartedness, sexuality and true, unswerving devotion to her nephew. Auntie Mame is the most unlikely parent, and yet the most enviable and endearing teacher. Ellis-Troy makes her exactly as funny, warm, indomitable and irresistible as she should be. It’s a stellar performance — one that would make anyone wish they had a fun-loving, flaky, far-out relative just like Auntie Mame.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.