Once upon a time, many eons ago, playwrights fashioned dramas about functional rather than dysfunctional families. It sounds like a fairy tale, but in stage plays such as I Remember Mama, husbands and wives willingly remain faithful to one another, and they love their children. More astonishingly, children love their parents. And everyone makes sacrifices to help each other fulfill wishes, like the father who gives up a weekly bottle of booze so that his son can afford to attend high school.
Such a life could suffer abrasions, like the lonely spinster whose first chance for love is thwarted by sniping relatives, serious illness like mastoiditis, and even death. Yet such a happy family can still achieve drama through the maturation of a sensitive artist finding a moment of glowing insight.
The Hansons are Norwegian immigrants in 1910 San Francisco, living in what is now pricey real estate, within view of the cable car line. In Kathryn Forbes’ sprawling fictionalized memoir, Mama’s Bank Account, the anxiety of being short on cash is a constant theme. Spending 15 cents for a chocolate soda constitutes extravagant indulgence. Playwright John Van Druten fashioned the two-hour, 40-minute stage play I Remember Mama, from the memoir, opening in 1944, with the still boyish Marlon Brando in the supporting role of son Nels. The play was a huge, broad-market success, spawning a beloved movie adaptation (1948) and a long-running CBS television series (1949- 1957).
Perhaps because of the size of the cast, with 21 speaking roles, Mama is rarely staged these days. Locally, Appleseed Productions, housed at Atonement Lutheran Church, has shown an affection for Mama, producing it at the Mulroy Civic Center in 1997. Appleseed brings it back as the second component of the District Festival at the New York State Fairgrounds’ Empire Theater.
The “I” of the title is precocious Katrin (Erin Griffin), an aspiring writer, the second child and eldest of three daughters.
We hear her first, along in her attic at stage left, recording in her diary, later to be called a “journal.” The mama she remembers is Marta Hansen (Theresa Constantine), a responsible matriarch but not a boss-lady. She gets on well with Papa (Robb Sharpe), a bemused ironist who nonetheless is involved in a labor strike during the second act.
While theirs is a happy partnership, Mama manages finances, always keeping outgo lower than income for fear of having to tap into a nest egg found at “the bank,” a word uttered with dread. Katrin’s growing perceptions of Mama, her resilience in dealing with difficulties, and Katrin’s portrayal of Mama, are the center of the drama.
of the several visitors to the set arrive by walking across a path to
the front door, seen upstage. Their steps, choreographed by director
C.J. Young, announce their characters and some of their vision before
they speak. Most to be dreaded are the two acerbic, meddlesome aunts,
Jenny (Kathy Egloff) and Sigrid (Pamela Kelley), who spit enough bile to
turn any contretemps into something bigger and uglier.
Mama’s first triumph over them comes when they try to ruin the engagement of lonely, needy Trina (Joleene Des Rosiers). They charge that her suitor, shy undertaker Mr. Thorkelson (Patrick Pedro), is either beneath her or a fortune hunter. Fighting fire with fire, Mama threatens to reveal the biddies’ own dirty laundry if they speak out.
Harder to outmaneuver is the old girls’ hatred for noisy, aggressive Uncle Chris (Walt Amey), who lives in sin with a woman he calls his “housekeeper.” Walking with a terrible limp, Uncle Chris has no regular job but travels the state of California, buying and selling properties, always appearing to come out ahead. Crusty with a soft center, he resembles Uncle Sid in Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness, especially when he gives lessons in the therapeutic advantages of cursing to bed-ridden nephew Arne (Jared Dunn). Mama’s revelation of Chris having disposed of his financial gains humbles Jenny and Sigrid once more.
Not all members of the Hanson household are family members or even Norwegians. For extra income, the Hansons take in a boarder, Mr. Hyde (Jeffrey Gorney), a retired English stage actor who entertains the family with readings from classic British and American litera ture, with Sydney Carton’s final scene in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities having the greatest effect on budding writer Katrin. For all the gold in Mr. Hyde’s voice, his departure, an episode penetrating pathos, reveals that he needed Mama’s money management skills.
While the several comings and goings can appear episodic, Katrin’s relations with her siblings are recurrent, and often irritating. Brother Nels (Rupert Krueger) can be saintly and stress-free, but the two younger sisters, Dagmar (Althea Simmons) and Christine (Lucy DiGenova), don’t make things easy. Through no fault of her own, Dagmar is hospitalized and forbidden visitors. An authoritarian nurse (Gina Fortino) sees to that. Mama, who enjoys scrubbing floors by hand, saves the day. By impersonating a hospital cleaner she can breach the blockade.
Toward the end Mama engineers her most significant gift for Katrin: the professional advice of Florence D. Moorehead (Roseanne Olszewski), a world-famous author. Her guidance might be standard in creative writing departments these days, but for Katrin, it’s like the revelation to Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker that water from the pump has a name and she can master it.
All of the older characters, actual immigrants, speak with Norwegian accents, although they begin to fade after a while, except for the V-for-W sounds, as in “Vhat a vaste” for “What a waste.” Then again, as the distinctive lilt of Scandinavian diction, perfected by the late John Qualen, tends to become comic when a different emotion might be called for, the lack is nothing to complain about.
The love of Appleseed Productions for I Remember Mama is evident everywhere, including C. J. Young and Robb Sharp’s sound design with quotations from Aaron Copland’s sweet pastoralism. The production is a triumph for the two leads, longtime character player Theresa Constantine as the loving matriarch, and leading-lady-to be Erin Griffin, first noted as the grieving teen in Appleseed’s The Midnight Room (March 2012). Robb Sharp’s Papa does a lot with a little, maximizing his effect with precise gestures and expressions. Extra applause also for Joleene DesRosiers as Trina, needful of love, and for Kathy Egloff and Pamela Kelley as the aunts from hell.
I Remember Mama is a domestic comedy the way they don’t write them anymore. Response on the first week of the District’s mini-festival implies that audiences are still calling out for function over dysfunction. o
This production runs through March 24.