‘Curious’ and charming comedy in Westfield

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.

Belfry brings inspiring ‘Lilies’ to Noblesville stage

By John Lyle Belden

“What can just one man do?” “It’ll take a miracle!”

Such sentiments summon angels, and can herald an uplifting story like “The Lilies of the Field,” the play by Andrew Leslie based on the William E. Barrett novel that inspired the 1963 film starring Sidney Poitier. Now the “Lilies” grow in Noblesville, courtesy of the Belfry Theatre, directed by Linnea Leatherman.

In 1954, Homer Smith (DeJon LeTray Marshall-Fisher), freshly discharged from the Army, is done with having people tell him what to do. He outfits a nice station wagon and roams the American West, taking day jobs when he feels like it. In a remote valley in the Southwest, he comes across a farm being tended by several aging nuns in obvious need of help. He plans to just pitch in long enough to patch a roof, take a day’s pay and be on his way – but Mother Maria Marthe (Kim O’Mara), and perhaps a Higher Power, have other plans.

The Sisters have escaped from Communist East Germany and Hungary, and get little aid from the Church, attending Mass in a town a few miles down the road, at an old mission church led by young priest Father Gomez (Gideon Roark).  Smith’s race is of little consequence here, among the Germanic nuns and Latinix villagers – they just think he’s a little loco for taking on Mother Maria’s quest to build an adobe chapel on the site of a burned-out house. He’s not entirely certain how he got talked into it, himself.

The locals are represented in this play by Jose Gonzalez (Patrick Crowley), who runs the diner near Gomez’s church. We also meet rich construction contractor Orville Livingston (Gene Burnett), who helped settle the Sisters in the United States, and figured that would be the end of his obligation.

It is worth it to see this play just for the super-sweet and charming nuns under Mother Maria’s care, played joyfully by Jan Jamison, Judy McGroarty, Jan Borcherding, and especially Diane Reed as dear Sister Albertine. Their humor and exuberance — whether learning English, or singing “That Old Time Religion,” with the man they call “Schmidt” — shines through.

Borcherding also appears as a folksinger in a nice framing device for each Act.

Marshall-Fisher makes a very likable Smith with compulsive generosity, while stubborn at times, but not mean. O’Mara never cracks from the stern, stoic shell she creates for Mother Maria, but she’s far from heartless. Roark and Crowley’s characters seem to enjoy watching this unfold as much as we do. Burnett plays Livingston being as hard as the materials he builds with, but still human.

But that chapel — can one man really do it? Witness the “miracle” at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th St., Noblesville, through March 27. Get info and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.