By John Lyle Belden
If you are around stages long enough, eventually a community theatre will mount “The Curious Savage.” This 1950 gem by popular screenwriter and playwright John Patrick was maybe a little too sentimental for more than a premiere run on Broadway over 70 years ago, but contains a rich variety of themes and subtleties (starting with its title). It is also a gift for a neighborhood playhouse with its single stage set and nearly a dozen fun and interesting characters to perform. Thus, it arrives with Main Street Productions in Westfield.
On a typical day in post-WWII America, we meet people who are intelligent, friendly and a bit eccentric. At The Cloisters, a mental institution, this is the wing of those needing the least supervision. Something is a little off about each of the patients – something that if resolved could lead to their exit. But they take comfort in their present home, and eagerly await a new arrival. Miss Willie (Rachel Pope), the nurse, sends them to their rooms, as head psychiatrist Dr. Emmett (Tom Riddle) brings in Mrs. Ethel P. Savage (Tanya Haas), looking like a normal older woman of the era, carrying a huge teddy bear. She has been committed by her step-children – U.S. Sen. Titus Savage (Steven Marsh), socialite Lily Belle Savage (Jan Boercherding), and Judge Samuel Savage (Ian A. Montgomery) – who claim she has been acting too irrationally since her husband (their father) died. Ethel insisted on becoming (gasp!) an actress, and even worse, wants to take the millions of dollars she inherited and start a foundation to give it away.
After the relatives depart, the inmates (who had been eavesdropping) introduce themselves. Fairy May (Phoebe Aldridge) is gregarious and thoughtful, and constantly embellishing “facts” about her life. Hannibal (Thom Johnson) is a statistician, replaced by a calculating machine, who convinced himself he can play violin. Florence (Jennifer Poynter) dotes on her five-year-old son, the doll she carries in place of the child she lost in infancy. Veteran Jeffrey (Josh Rooks) carries his survivor’s guilt as an invisible (except to him) facial scar, and vaguely remembers he played the piano before the War. Mrs. Paddy (Lisa Warner) an aspiring seascape painter, was once told by her husband to “Shut up!” and she did, never speaking a word except, when emotional, she lists the things she hates – including electricity, which she gave up for Lent.
This wonderful, gentle comedy takes no cheap shots at the disordered. Enterprising methods of exercise, for instance, look silly but contain their own rational intent. While entertaining, we also see how their eccentricities become limiting, demonstrating their need for treatment. Where the “crazy” comes in is when the trio of Savages arrive to attempt to force Ethel to reveal what she has done with the family fortune. As Lily Belle betrays her classlessness, Samuel his whimpering indecision, and Titus his blowhard bluster (Marsh looks like his head will literally explode), the residents appear downright sane.
Haas keeps Ethel endearing, yet sly, charming, and conniving like a “Mame” or “Dolly” character in captivity. Her housemates also work their way into our hearts as they go to great lengths to maintain perpetual happiness. Pope and Riddle show the genuine concern their characters have for everyone’s wellbeing.
Director Nancy Lafferty has done an outstanding job with this American classic. Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 6-9, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. For info and tickets, visit westfieldplayhouse.org.