It's a warm summer evening at the Martin Vanderhof New York home. Martin is the patriarch of a warm and welcoming extended family whose dinners begin with a prayer of Thanksgiving: "We all have our health
and leave the rest to you!"
"You Can't Take It With You," George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's three-act comedy, makes for a sizzling conclusion to the Monomoy Theatre's 83rd summer season. Guest Director MichaelJohn McGann instinctively values the significance of Grandpa Vanderhof's wisdom for his family to be happy in their own unique ways. "Life is pretty simple if you relax. Beautiful if you let it come to you!" McGann draws the audience close to the characters' hearts and then whammy! as explosives literally rock the Monomoy stage.
"You Can't Take It With You," winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is one of the 10 most popular plays performed for schools and theater companies. Recently produced in Provincetown, Pawtucket, and St. Michael's College, the play's themes of what defines the American family and idealism continue to be debated to this day. The plot has a timeliness to it: Wall Street tycoons versus the unemployed, fundamentalist spirituality versus individuality, paying or avoiding taxes and the consequences, trusting government with our tax dollars, radical threats versus government threats, jail time or spending time in the arts, dance, music. Russian collusion and influence or Grandpa's peacemaking theorem conquering a divisive debate?
Terry Layman (Martin Vanderhof) and Nora Chester (Gay, Olga) command the comedy with their Broadway professionalism and charm. Layman's tax-evading leader of self-actualizing psychology who raises snakes for a hobby is presented as a free-flowing patriarch urging his family and friends to enjoy their lives. Layman's Grandpa is challenging, lovable and subtle in delivering the play's message.
Erin Cessna is daughter Penelope Sycamore, a writer, homebody and artist who never quite finishes her creative works. Cessna, too, is subtle while appearing throughout the two-hour show, often understated but
always thorough. Penelope's two-family word association game begins with potato and moves on to lust and sex, revealing a lot between and within the lines.
Christopher Bailey seriously portrays Penelope's husband Paul Sycamore whose fireworks hobby, along with stream-of-consciousness printing of son-in-law Ed Carmichael (Lawson Lewallen) lands the entire cast in jail. Matthew Werner becomes his assistant Mr. DePinna who came for dinner years before and never left.
Alice is the Sycamore's lovely, attractive daughter and the only working (and outwardly normal) member of the Vanderhof extended family. Laura Axelrod's Alice truly loves her family and understands their eccentricities.
Axelrod carries the link between Alice's family of individualists and the conforming hard-working Kirbys who own a business on Wall Street. Alice is deeply in love with son Tony Kirby. Reid Williams is dashing in black tuxedo as Tony, who never gives up on the girl of his dreams.
Mark Lawrence marks Mr. Kirby as a real stuffed shirt, especially in a tux. Emily Qualmann adds a few sparklers of her own as the elegant Mrs. Kirby, ready for a formal dinner party. The Kirbys show up one day early to Alice's hopeful dinner introduction of the two families in anticipation of coming together for their grown children's happy wedding day.
Rachel Rival moves the storyline by her ballet positions as the Sycamore's daughter Essie. Of course, her Russian ballet master Boris Kolenkhov played by formidable Tristan Rewald dominates the action with several imperious outbursts on the Russian Revolution. Lewallen is Essie's husband Ed who just loves to play the xylophone and print random phrases, which he stuffs in the boxes of candy his wife makes in the kitchen. Irish housekeeper Rita (Katherine Wolff) paired with Pedro Fontes as Dominic keeps the family dinner table well supplied. Cameron Burill makes a surprise visit as IRS agent Henderson.
Nora Chester's dual roles as tipsy actress Gay who passes out on the couch and Grand Duchess Olga punctuates the comedic happenings proving Russians don't always have a tendency to look on the dark side. The FBI and Department of Justice surprise the dinner guests and make arrests, but Grandpa somehow outwits the Feds and the Kirbys while the Duchess serves everyone tasty blintzes.
Director McGann complimented this year's talented cast and crew stating they truly performed as caring family members towards one another.
To the tune of "Ain't We Had Fun," the Monomoy Theater closes this Saturday night. May I conclude with my own toast to the University of Hartford, the Hartt School, Friends of Monomoy Theatre and Artistic Director Alan Rust for bringing live theater, such gifted students actors, musicians, and crew, and beneficent guest artists to Chatham's Main Street.