By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
RED BANK — “I Remember Mama,” based on Kathryn Forbes’ “Mama’s Bank Account,” was adapted for the Broadway stage by John Van Druten (1944). It was turned into a movie (1948) and TV series (1950s), before returning to Broadway (1979) as a musical lasting a mere 108 performances.
The play, rarely performed these days, is set in 1910 and focuses on an extended Norwegian immigrant family who settled in San Francisco and is pursuing the American dream.
So what else is there to say about it, especially in the digital age?
Enter the award-winning Transport Group, a not-for-profit, off-Broadway company in Manhattan that stages new works and re-imagines revivals by American writers. Its mission: to present “visually progressive productions of emotionally classic stories (that) explore the challenges of relationships and identity in modern America.”
Well, it did that with its excellent production of “I Remember Mama.” It breathes new life into this World War II era play.
First staged in a gymnasium in 2014, the production currently is on the boards here in association with Two River Theater through June 26. Both productions were insightfully directed by Jack Cummings III, co-founder and artistic director of the Transport Group.
Noncommercial theaters can and should take such risks and the Two River Theater audience has shown a willingness to embrace them. This season included an all-male “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and is closing with this all-female “Mama,” and neither shows were gimmicks. They both challenged audiences to look at life and art differently and both succeeded.
Ten actresses, age 60 or older, play 25 characters in “Mama.” Barbara Andres (veteran of nine Broadway shows, including “Cabaret” as Fraulein Schneider) recreates her role as Mama and seems born to play the part. Mia Katigbak is superb as her eldest daughter Katrin (the writer of the original story) and a teenager here.
All the other parts are handled by Alice Cannon, Lynn Cohen, Rita Gardner, Marjorie Johnson, Susan Lehman, Heather MacRae, Louise Sorel and Dale Soules. They play Mama’s husband, her two other daughters and son Nels (a role in which Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut), her three sisters, Uncle Chris and boarder Mr. Hyde, a doctor, nurses and more.
The women wear casual contemporary clothing (by Kathryn Rohe) and no makeup. They are extraordinary in their ability to conjure their characters with just a change of stance, voice or attitude.
The set (by Dane Laffrey) consists of 10 wooden kitchen tables, the kind where families used to spend time sitting and talking and telling stories. Each table has a theme and is covered in items such as teacups, books, glasses, silverware, writing materials, small decorative boxes. Plain white walls, a metal emergency exit door and brilliant white overhead lights (lighting by R. Lee Kennedy) resemble a gym.
Although the look is contemporary, the story of families sticking together, sacrificing for each other and stretching a dollar while looking to move up in the world is one that immigrants in America — most any country for that matter — experience and hear stories about around the dinner table. Or should.
For the Hanson family of Steiner Street, it’s 1910 and Mama is counting out money for the landlord, the grocer, and for one new pair of shoes. Money for school supplies also is needed, but there is not enough. So Papa says he will give up tobacco, one daughter will work after school and another will babysit to help.
Aunt Trina arrives and announces, at 42, she wants to marry a local undertaker. Aunts Sigrid and Jenny arrive and are appalled at the idea. Before long, scary Uncle Chris — the head of the family, Mama says — arrives and intimidates everyone — except Mama.
Lynn Cohen (original Broadway productions of “Hair,” “Grey Gardens” and “Hands on a Hard Body”) plays both Mama’s English boarder Mr. Hyde, who reads the classics to the family at night around the table, and gruff Uncle Chris, playing both to perfection.
When youngest daughter Dagmar falls ill, Uncle Chris inserts himself into the situation so much the doctor bans him from entering the hospital. Later we discover Uncle Chris, unmarried and childless, is almost broke because he secretly has been paying the hospital bills for sick and deformed children.
As Katrin approaches graduation, she sets her heart on a set of modern combs and brushes. Mama trades her mother’s cherished silver brooch to get it. Katrin learns of the trade and is devastated by her selfishness.
Don’t be surprised if you are not teary-eyed before the end of this memoir play about one mother’s strength and sacrifices for her family. It is, after all, the hardest job in the world.
WHAT: “I Remember Mama”
WHERE: Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank
WHEN: Wednesdays through Sundays, closes June 26
COST: $37 to $65, limited number of $20 tickets each performance
MORE INFO: 732-345-1400 or http://tworivertheater.org
Journalist Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s theater news and reviews can be found on theatercues.com.
This article was originally published in the June 16-23, 2016 edition of the Two River Times newspaper.
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