AUNTIE MAMEBy Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Richardson Theatre Centre
Director – Dena Dunn
Stage Manager – Jeremy William Osborne
Set Designer – Milan Anich II
Lighting Designer – Richard Stephens
Sound Design – Jeremy Williams Osborne
Costume Designer – Tammy Partanen
Props Designer – Bill Olds
Props Assistants – Nathan Freeman, Glynda Welch
Norah Muldoon/Mother Burnside – Charlotte Giles
Young Patrick/Michael – Riley Niksich
Nick (fta Ito) – Steve Haid
Vera Charles – Debbie Deverich
Cuz Jeff/Paper Hanger – Steven Shaw
M. Linsay Woolsey – Kevin Paris
Auntie Mame – Amanda Carson Green
Bishop/Lord Dudley/Dr. Shurr – Steve Niksich
Mr. Babcock – Frank Wyatt
Al Linden/Stage manager – Jeremy William Osborne
Doris Upson/Maid/Cousin Jeff’s Wife – Joan Epps
Claude Upson/Butler/Drunk Woman’s Husband – Lloyd Webb
Brian O’Bannion/Leading Man/Mr. Loomis – Richard Stephens
Sally Cato/Pegeen Ryan – Emily Burgardt
Emory/Macy Shopper’s Son – Parker Niksich
Gloria Upson/Party Girl/ Macy’s Woman/Cousin – Amber Harrington
Beuregard JP Burnside/Ralph Devine – Bill Olds
Patrick Dennis – Hal Heath
Agnes Gooch/Radcliff – Glynda Welch
Cousin Fan/Drunk Woman/Macy’s Shopper – Sara Martin
Osbert/Theater Manager/Groom – Nathan Freeman
Girl – Nicole Osborne
Reviewed Performance: 9/3/2016
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee adapted the 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis by the same name and turned it into a successful Broadway play in 1956. Years later it was adapted into a film and a musical. The original book was inspired by the author’s aunt. While the storyline is fictitious there is such a strong realism to the book and play that many people erroneously believe it is biographical. The charm of Mame, and the play, is that this is a woman whose views were anathema to the time period she lived in. To say she bucks social conventions would be an understatement. Her zest for life, her free thinking ways, and her fierce independence counterpoint the social mores of the middle of the 20th century. She is truly a feminist because she defines her life on her own terms.
The plot of the play is simple and linear: Mame is assigned guardianship over her nephew Patrick who is orphaned. It is established at the onset that Patrick’s upbringing was quite conservative. Mame is flamboyant. Patrick does have a trustee handling the estate, Mr. Babcock, and he has polar opposite views as to how the boy should be raised. Eventually Mr. Babcock wins and places Patrick in a boarding school thus limiting the contact, and hopefully Mame’s influence on the boy.
There are multiple storylines with the secondary characters during the play, but the two main plots, Patrick and Mame’s, unify it. As the play progresses Mame, who was independently wealthy, suffers a terrible financial loss from the stock market crash of 1929, is forced to get a series of jobs, marries a wealthy man and becomes a widow. Patrick learns to adapt to Mame’s life style, but then rebels against it as he grows up, and eventually becomes engaged to Gloria Upson who comes from a very conservative family. The contrast between these characters’ worlds creates the comedic fodder and the drama which makes this play fully satisfying: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll exhilarate, you’ll feel sad, and then you’ll laugh again.
“Auntie Mame” isn’t frequently produced because the play requires an enormous amount of resources for a theatre to mount. The play spans more than 10 years so the costuming and the sets must reflect the passage of time. Though the play happens mostly at Mame’s home, there are over one dozen scenes in the script, some taking place at a plantation home, the Alps, at a theatre, Macy’s, etc. This requires an enormous amount of set construction and along with it a vast array of props. A minimalist version of this play would be practically impossible to mount because the locations are integral to the story. Once the production requirements are met, casting “Auntie Mame” is not easy. With over 30 characters it requires a very large cast, even if some of the minor roles are being doubled or tripled. Every role, no matter how large or small is plumb and integral to the story. Richardson Theatre Centre needs to be commended for taking on such a behemoth of a play.
So how did Richardson Theatre Centre do?
I am pleased to say that Richardson Theatre Centre does a fine job of mounting “Auntie Mame.” Is it a perfect production? No. Is it worth your time to go see it? Absolutely yes.
For the play to connect with an audience it requires three strong actors to portray the highly complex characters which are central to the story: Mame, young Patrick, and the older Patrick. Director Dena Dunn hit a home run in casting Amanda Carson Green, Riley Niksich, and Hal Heath, respectively.
Amanda Carson Green as Mame inhabited the iconic role completely. One thing to keep in mind is that Rosalind Russell originated the role on Broadway and later on film, and it is considered by many as one of the most memorable performances of her career. Ms. Green made the role her own from the moment she stepped on stage. I completely forgot of Rosalind Russell. Ms. Green lands every one liner with mastery. She is able to portray Mame’s vulnerabilities behind the bravado. Her evolution of a woman who first sees her nephew as a new play thing to that of a caring mother is sublime. A lesser actor would over play this seemingly over the top character. Ms. Green reels Mame in, finds her soul, and makes her very real.
Riley Niksich is a wonder to behold as the young Patrick. His transition from being the lost little boy in a world unfamiliar to him, to accepting and loving Mame, and then pulling away emotionally from her as he begins to settle down at boarding school would be difficult for any seasoned adult actor to pull off. As a young actor, Mr. Niksich gives a subtle and nuanced performance that resonates in its veracity.
Hal Heath as the older Patrick has to step in and pick up the role and make it seamless with Mr. Niksich. We see in him the complete evolution of Patrick. His mixed feelings regarding his dual upbringing and his longing to fit in are palpable. There’s no doubt that he loves his fiancée, but he also loves Mame and he knows that each will disapprove of the other, and thus him. This internal conflict is palpable because not only are the line deliveries spot on but we see it in his body language that enlightens or betrays his feelings. The best example of this is during the gathering of his fiancée’s family at Mame’s house: He is being pleasant, cordial, even vivacious, yet his rigid stance and stiffness communicates loudly his distress. In another scene his relaxed body posture with his more stern line delivery also clues the audience that even though he’s uttering disapproval, it’s more of a façade. His effortless and complex performance is glorious.
Some of the secondary roles that weave in and out of the story are played by actors with various degrees of success. Overall the ensemble is quite strong.
Agnes Gooch is Mame’s stenographer (Mame is convinced to write her autobiography). Glynda Welch imbues every moment of Gooch with delirious lunacy. Usually Gooch is played by a much younger actor. Welch uses her age to her advantage. When she discovers she’s pregnant her sense of shock brought down the house in laughter.
Amber Harrington plays Gloria, Patrick’s fiancée. Gloria doesn’t put on airs, she is “airs”. While her upper class intonation and attitude was correct, in her performance it never came across as natural. Hopefully during the run of the show she’ll settle more into her character.
Sara Martin who plays three roles as Cousin Fan, Drunk Woman, and Macy’s Shopper, proves that there are no small roles. She delineated each character effectively making me forget that it was the same actor doing all three roles.
Bill Olds plays Beauregard, Mame’s love interest. While he looked the part and carried himself effectively, his projection was frequently too soft, thus momentarily pulling the audience out of the moment as we collectively leaned in to try and hear the swallowed lines. He suffered with the same problem of speaking too softly when he played Ralph Devine.
Vera Charles, Mame’s long term gal pal is played with much zest by Debbie Deverich. Ms. Deverich has spot on comedic timing and even though her character is constantly embroiled in outrageous antics, she gives Vera a heart.
On the technical side the production is quite good. My first comment upon walking in to the theatre and seeing Mame’s apartment was “Impressive.” Milan Anich II captures the chinoiserie aesthetic that was so popular in the 1920’s, and as time passes his choice of furniture reflects the nascent mid-century modernist aesthetic. Frequently set pieces would be carried or rolled in, to create the myriad of locations, and each one clearly cued the audience as to where the scene was taking place.
Costuming of this show is a major undertaking. To wardrobe so many actors in period clothes is challenge. To then dress them to reflect the changing styles as time progresses, and since this play takes place in various locations, they also must reflect the regional variations of dress, must have been quite difficult. Tammy Partanen deserves an award for surmounting this challenge. Mame’s wardrobe alone demonstrated her mastery of this medium. Each time Mame stepped into a scene her costume stunned.
Bill Olds as the props designer and his assistants Nathan Freeman and Glynda Welch deserve kudos in locating, procuring, or building all the props that were period correct. It’s easy to find antiques from the 1920’s and 1930’s, but to find the vast amount of antiques that also look new required more than just one resource. Much care was given to preserve the authenticity of the period.
The lighting requirements for “Auntie Mame” aren’t much. Most scenes require a general wash. This said, there is one scene in particular in which Mame is acting in a play and the perspective is that we as an audience are behind the stage. Richard Stephens did a superb job with the limited instrumentation to create the effect. As an audience the “stage lights” show in our face as if we were on stage, but never blinded us. He also lit the scene in such a way that we could still the character’s faces and not just their silhouettes. Richardson Theatre Centre has very limited lighting capacity, so for Mr. Stephens to be able to ably create this complicated effect is a testament to his talent.
Dena Dunn as the director deserves credit for tackling this complicated show. The production requirements alone would scare many directors away. Add to this having to wrangle such a large cast and help elicit from them such solid performances could be overwhelming. She beautifully succeeds in bringing all these disparate elements to create a cohesive whole. It is obvious she nurtured the cast to allow them to bring out effective performances. The only quibble I have with her direction is in some of the staging. She stages the scenes that have two or three characters beautifully. Unfortunately, in the larger group scenes that have five or more actors on stage her staging lacks crispness and focus. The clunkiness in handling the large group scenes is surprising because the play opens with a fabulous tableau with most of the cast on stage. Lamentably, none of the other scenes attain the visual unity of the opening. On the plus side she obviously thoroughly rehearsed the scene changes with the cast and crew because even though the play has numerous scenes, the show never lost momentum.
“Auntie Mame” is one of the greatest American plays of the 20th Century for a reason. The script is pure gold. It has many quotable lines that have become part of our vernacular, so to hear these famous lines in context adds another layer of enjoyment. The playwrights were in top form when they wrote it. It is a shame that the technical aspects of this play prevent it from being performed as often as it should. It is a thrill to see that Richardson Theatre Centre has mounted a strong production that is well worth attending.
Richardson Theatre Centre, 518 W. Arapaho Road, Suite 113, Richardson, TX 75080
Now through September 18. 2016
Performances on Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, and Sundays at 2:00 PM. For information and tickets visit www.RichardsonTheatreCentre.net or call 972-699-1130