Like a medieval morality play, Sutter Street Theatre’s latest production is a “blast from the past” with an eternal message: “You Can’t Take It with You.”
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and set in June of 1935, this play made its original debut at the Booth Theater off Broadway on Dec. 14, 1936. It ran for 837 performances and won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Frank Capra was so impressed by this comedy, that he cast Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in the 1938 film of the same title. It received seven Oscar nominations and won two Academy Awards (Best Picture and Best Director for Capra).
Sutter Street’s production takes us back to the Depression Era and a time when America was wrestling with some of the same issues facing American families today: What is really important in life? Is it money? Power? Status? Or could it be something more … that je ne sais quoi of life that makes a house a home?
The entire three act play takes place in the Sycamore home. The Sycamore family is a nutty bunch, but loveably so. They truly accept and support one another — and take in human strays of every type (including a postman, an iceman and Russian émigrés). They genuinely love people where they are at.
The patriarch of this house of loving madness is Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Stephen Kauffman). He lives his life according to the philosophy of “Don’t do anything that you’re not going to enjoy doing.” He goes to commencements, the circus, throws darts and collects snakes and stamps.
Penny Sycamore (Sara Noah) writes plays she never finishes. Her husband, Paul (Ken Watkins), creates fireworks in the basement. Their two adult daughters (one married) still live at home. Daughter Essie Carmichael (Jessica Larrick) dreams of becoming a dancer, and her husband Ed (Michael Coleman) is a wacky typesetter.
The Sycamores may not have much financially, but they are rich in love and in life.
The drama of the play centers on the other daughter, Alice Sycamore (Ashley White), who is in love with her employer’s son, Tony Kirby (Shane Burrows).
The Kirby family couldn’t be more different from the Sycamores. Tony’s parents (ably portrayed by Monique McKisson and Jon Beaver) are the souls of propriety, with positions in high society and Wall Street. They are well-dressed and well-heeled. And Alice wants to fit in.
Like oil and water, the audience wonders (along with Alice) whether or not this blending of two families can be a success.
This play has a happy ending and a heart-warming message.
There is a negative image in this play, however, that — perhaps — was not intended by the writers.
One aspect of the play surprised me, and this has to do with the differences in values between this century and the last. This play is a product of its times, and reflects an era in which African Americans were portrayed in advertising, film and stage as either subjects for ridicule or as servants.
In film, I can “accept” that what I am seeing is a record of attitudes that, happily, are now in the past. In live theater, however, one becomes “immersed” in the play and becomes a part of it. A participant, in a way.
I found watching the African-American characters of Rheba (Tisha Hill-Smith) and Donald (Jason Oler) with their “yessirs” and “yes’ms” to be very difficult and disturbing. Demeaning to them. That said, this play treats these characters with remarkable respect for the era, and Rheba and Donald share some commentary about their situation and that of “the white folks” that is very thoughtful.
Because of this portrayal, which is simply due to the authenticity of the actors in presenting the play, I rate this play as appropriate for those ages 14 and up — but would advise parents to discuss the play with the kids afterward.
“You Can’t Take It With You” presents families with an excellent opportunity to discuss their family’s values.
“You Can’t Take It With You” runs through June 5. The Sutter Street Theatre is located at 717 Sutter Street in Old Town Folsom. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $23 general, $21 seniors and SARTA members, and $15 for children ages 12 and under. Tickets can be purchased at the door, but for best availability, call (916) 353-1001. Also visitwww.sutterstreettheatre.com.
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