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‘The Curious Savage’ a satisfying surprise

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‘The Curious Savage’ a satisfying surprise (photo courtesy UMaine School of Performing Arts)

ORONO – There are some curious goings-on currently afoot at the University of Maine.

UMaine’s School of Performing Arts is presenting John Patrick’s classic 1950 comedy “The Curious Savage.” The production, directed by Julie Arnold Lisnet, is taking place at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus; the show runs through November 18.

The show tells the story of a widowed woman whose deceased husband placed a lot of money in her care – money that her unpleasant stepchildren would like to get their hands on. They’re willing to go so far as to have her committed, but what they don’t count on is the strength and smarts of their stepmother – or the help she might find in unexpected places.

The Cloisters is a sanatorium devoted to helping patients deal with various emotional ailments. In the living room of one wing of the facility, we meet a group of people anxiously awaiting the arrival of someone new.

There’s Fairy May (Katie Luck), a young woman whose delusions lead her to lie – a LOT. But even with her pathological falsehoods, she remains sweet and likable. Florence (Pooja Rawat) lost a child, but refuses to accept it, instead claiming that a doll is her son John Thomas. Hannibal (Owen Sinclair) is a statistician who got replaced by an electronic computer and struggled with his obsolescence; he now believes himself to be a gifted violinist (he is not). Jeff (Elijah McTiernan) is a military veteran whose plane was shot down during the war; the entire crew was lost save himself. He believes that his face was horribly scarred despite surviving without a mark on him. And Mrs. Paddy (Ael Fitzgerald) was told to shut up one too many times and stopped communicating, speaking only to rattle off long lists of things she hates. This group is being treated by the gentle Dr. Emmett (David Olski) with the help of the tender-hearted Miss Willie (Sarah Tantawy).

The new arrival is Ethel Savage (Katie Dube), an older woman who was married to a wealthy titan of industry until his recent passing. He left all of his money to her – some $10 million – and she sought to turn it into a fund of charitable giving aimed at spreading happiness.

This desire is seen as madness by Ethel’s spoiled, entitled stepchildren, all of whom want what they believe to be their share of their father’s estate. Bombastic Titus (Noah Lovejoy), a politician known as the least-liked man in the Senate; slinky Lily Belle (Vanessa Graham), veteran of half-a-dozen marriages; and dull-witted Samuel (Will Bickford), a judge with the dubious distinction of most decisions overturned – these three aim to have their stepmother committed so they can get that money.

Only Ethel has hidden it – and has no desire to reveal its location.

And it seems the Savage children have miscalculated; instead of placing their stepmother at a disadvantage, they’ve instead dropped her into a place rife with allies. Each of the residents connects with Ethel’s gentle ebullience – they quickly become friends. And in a situation like this one, Ethel is going to need all the friends she can get.

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to feel about “The Curious Savage.” It’s a show about a sanatorium that is almost 70 years old; what kind of dated insensitivity might I be subjecting myself to?

Very little, as it turns out.

All in all, “The Curious Savage” reads as remarkably progressive considering its period of origin. These people’s infirmities don’t define them; for the most part, the laughs (and there are a good number of those) are WITH rather than AT. It’s a distinction you don’t always get with older comedies, but it’s made fairly clear in this case.

At least some of the credit for that goes to Lisnet’s direction. The local theater veteran has done a wonderful job of finding ways to make this production feel fresh without anything so coarse as an “update.” In her hands, the show wears its age well without coming off as hoary or dated. She captures the spirit of the thing beautifully; it is of its time and place without being bound to them. That’s a delicate balance to strike – especially with a cast of college students – but strike it she does.

It’s a quality ensemble that she’s assembled as well. Katie Dube is a delight as Ethel, displaying a command of the stage that belies her youth. Playing older is always a challenge in academic theater, but she handles it well; her Ethel has a sprightliness, an eye-twinkling energy that acknowledges the character’s age without being beholden to it. Her Cloisters cohort does good work as well, each finding quality notes to strike. Luck charms as the frantic Fairy May, with a goofiness that undermines her falsehoods to great comedic effect. Fitzgerald takes advantage of Mrs. Paddy’s infrequent outbursts, spitting her list of hates with a hysterical rhythmic flare. Sinclair’s Hannibal is all lanky, nerdy charm, while Rawat endows Florence with a heartbreaking sweetness. McTiernan gives us a stiff upper lip as Jeff, while also allowing us to see some cracks.

As for the Savage stepchildren? Lovejoy grumbles and shouts his way through his scenes, allowing his anger to bubble over in hilarious fashion. Graham is fearlessly physical, pinballing around the stage at the drop of a hat while also plausibly portraying Lily Belle’s less-than-stellar femme fatalism – tough to do both, but she manages. Bickford finds the humor in the dimwitted Samuel, creating a hangdog vibe that is wonderful to watch. Meanwhile, Tantawy’s nurturing nature as Miss Willie is lovely and evocative, while Olski does yeoman’s work bringing the nonplussed Dr. Emmett to life.

The production values are spectacular. J.P. Ankrom’s lighting design and Michelle Handley’s costume design are both spot-on, while Katie Keaton’s scenic design makes the leap from very good to outstanding as the play progresses – you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

“The Curious Savage” might seem like an unconventional choice for a college theater to produce. And it is. That doesn’t mean it lacks merit. Quite the contrary, the opportunity a show like this offers – both to those creating it and those watching it – is relatively rare.

All in all, it’s a curiosity well worth satisfying.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 November 2018 13:07

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