by: Sandi Durell
If you were watching weekly episodes on CBS television from 1949-1957, you probably have recall about the family comedy-drama based on Kathryn Forbes “Mama’s Bank Account,” with Peggy Wood, adapted from John Van Druten’s 1944 play and 1948 film I Remember Mama. It was originally introduced on the Broadway stage at the Music Box Theatre in October 1944, starring Mady Christians, Oscar Homolka, Joan Tetzel and Marlon Brando, in his Broadway debut. It came to the stage again as a 1979 Broadway musical with a book by Thomas Meehan, lyrics by Martin Charnin and Raymond Jessel and music by Richard Rodgers in his final original Broadway production.
The story is about a loving Norwegian family living in San Francisco in the early 1900s, solidly held together by Mama, as told through the eyes of the elder daughter, Katrin Hansen, a writer (played by Barbara Barrie), narrator to the family history that comes alive in the Transport Group’s production at the Gym at Judson.
Entering the Gym, the floor is filled with 10 tables and accompanying chairs, the tables strewn with different family treasures – glassware, books, photographs, typewriters, silverware, notes, heirlooms – the audience seated, cramped, around the perimeter. The cast of ten actresses play male and children’s roles, a total of 25 different characters.
The women are all veteran stage actresses, most dressed in pants and comfortable contemporary clothes, most speaking with a Norwegian accent. Barbara Andres, as the stoic Mama, together with Dale Soules, who plays Papa, are the glue of the family to whom all members come to have their problems solved. They worry about money (kept in a little bank at home) and each other. When son Nells (Heather MacRae) speaks of going to high school, they do not think they can afford that luxury and he takes it on the chin. MacRae and Soules, both in the original cast of ‘Hair,” morph easily into male roles.
The youngest member, Dagmar (Phyllis Sommerville), in childish voice and manner, skips merrily around, taking care of and worrying about her cat Uncle Elizabeth who becomes ill while Dagmar is in hospital having surgery. Not allowed into the hospital to see Dagmar during the first 24 hours, Mama devises a mirthful plan to make sure she sees her little Dagmar. Mama also attempts to chloroform Elizabeth to put him out of his misery, but we all know a cat has nine lives, and he survives to Dagmar’s delight when she returns.
Also in the household are middle daughter Christine (Louise Sorel) and rough, crusty and cantankerous Uncle Chris (Lynn Cohen) to whom all family members go for permission for everything. Cohen also plays tenant Mr. Hyde who can’t pay the rent but reads wonderful stories to the children.
Mama’s two sisters Aunt Sigrid (Susan Lehman) and Aunt Jenny (Alice Cannon) meddle lovingly whenever they can. They also play additional roles as do most of the cast members. Aunt Trina, played by Rita Gardner (the original Louisa in The Fantasticks), wants to get married to a funeral director but comes first to Mama before asking Uncle Chris for permission.
The stories unfold in such vignettes over a two and half hour period of time as the cast floats to and from various tables, cleverly directed by Jack Cummings III. The nostalgia trip (if you’re old enough to remember any of this) creates a warm and fuzzy feeling of family values that is in blazing contrast to our current lives.
The additional value of seeing these great actresses of a certain age all on stage together is remarkable and pleasurable. Could this story have been told in less time? Probably, and it would have made for a more comfortable theater experience.
“This old album makes me remember so many things in the past. San Francisco and the house on Steiner Street where I was born. It brings back memories of my cousins, aunts, and uncles; all the boys and girls I grew up with. And I remember my family as we were then. My brother Nels, my little sister Dagmar, and of course, Papa. But most of all when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember … Mama.”
Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street, at Washington Square South, Greenwich Village 866-811-4111, transportgroup.org. through April 20. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
Photos: Carol Rosegg