You Can’t Take it With You

The Calhoun Community College Theatre Department is running a lovely production of the timeless classic, You Can’t Take it With You, in the Black Box Theatre on the Decatur campus through next Saturday.  There is a good reason why you can’t go more than a handful of years in community theatre without seeing this show come back around again–it’s a fun comedy, with wonderful, zany characters, and beautiful message about life.  This Calhoun production is quite well done.  The set is outstanding, the directing is solid, and the actors give nice performances.  Combine that with the incredible script, and it’s a very enjoyable evening.

You Can’t Take it With You is the story of three generations of the Vanderhof family all living under the same roof, and all of whom follow their passions.  To say they are eccentric is putting it mildly.  The drama comes when Alice, the one daughter with a “regular” job outside the home, who has met the love of her life, Tony Kirby, brings home his family for the first time.   The Kirbys are “normal”–conventional, successful, and compared to the Vanderhofs, uptight–and the difference in life philosophies means things do not go well.  Throw in visits from the IRS, exploding fireworks, ballerinas dancing to live xylophone music, and visitors of all varieties dropping in at any time, and the house is rarely quiet.  The underlying message of the show is about examining your life priorities and refusing to waste precious years on things you don’t love.  It’s a rare audience member that doesn’t leave You Can’t Take it With You with a few introspective thoughts about their life priorities.

The script, pushing 80 years old, has aged fairly well.  The characters and hobbies are still identifiable.  The message is still, and always will be, timely.  It is amusing to note that while the playwrights could conceive of someone “dropping out” from society’s norms, they never apparently considered the possibility of, for example, a woman keeping her maiden name when getting married.

The one aged facet of the script, that every contemporary production has to deal with, is that it’s scripted as a white family with an African-American servant, whose African-American boyfriend is unashamedly on unemployment and admits to being lazy, which can be unfortunate stereotypes these days.  Thankfully, casting is becoming more and more color-blind, but that doesn’t mean audiences don’t notice race at all.  While the Calhoun production did practice color-blind casting, it’s not clear that is the case until well into the play, depending on the night one sees the show.  On opening night, it was a white family and African-American servants.  All would have been okay when we are introduced to the African-American Tony Kirby, the male love interest for the play, except that he is greeted at the door with the unfortunate line, “you aren’t what we were expecting,” which likely made some in the audience wonder where this script was headed.  Thankfully, the plot truly is race-neutral, as is this production, but there was literally an audible sigh through the audience when the rich and successful, mixed-race Kirby parents arrived at the door.

When this play is done right, the Vanderhof clan has to hit their crazy stride right from the top, so that their antics almost assault the audience with fervor, but as time goes on and we get to know them as people, we realize they’re merely normal folks who spend their time doing exactly and only the things they love doing.  When the Kirby’s arrive, representing what we would usually consider a “normal” point of view on life, it’s too late–we’re already converted to the Vanderhof side.  But it’s not until after the meeting of the two families that we realize we’ve crossed over, and start to analyze it.  By the end of the show, the audience should want to move in with the Vanderhofs.

This Calhoun production hits almost all the marks for greatness.  Bill Provin’s direction is nearly perfect.  His characters are all distinctive and interesting, and he successfully captures the necessary pace and tempo of the show.  His blocking keeps the action moving and interesting, without seeming crowded on a small stage with 21 actors.  The unique alley configuration, with audience seated on two opposite sides of the stage, makes for interesting challenges, and Provin handles it well, never leaving an audience member feeling like they sat on the wrong side.

Provin’s one mis-step in this production is the character of “Alice”, who is part of the Vanderhof family and dearly loves them all, but is not like them in demeanor.  Alice first enters after the audience has met the rest of the clan and their antics.  Right away, we should see that she is different, that she’s not “loony”, and that she could fit in out in the world.  She should float in on a cloud, not only because that poise and charm is what would capture the heart of a company vice-president, but also because she is absolutely in love and on cloud nine. This production’s Alice is neither distinct in demeanor from the rest of the family, nor do we get the feeling that she’s in love.  Later that evening, when Alice and Tony return from their date and are alone onstage, we need to see that they are deeply, passionately in love with each other.  We do, after all, see the proposal moment, and it should be a magical time on stage.  The problem here is that while Tony is deeply, passionately in love, Alice is flirting like they’re on their third date.  The audience just doesn’t get the impression that Alice’s heart is in her throat and that time has stopped still.  Later in the play, when things have turned sour, and Alice is preparing to leave the household, we should see someone who loves her family very dearly, but is heartbroken, and just wishes to escape for a while.  What we get in this production is an Alice who is flat-out angry with her family for being the people they are.  While there is much that works very well in this production, this one mis-directed character leaves the emotional heartbeat of the show a bit weak.

Among the actors, there are too many to mention, but a few performances stand out.  Angela Green, as the Vanderhof matriarch, “Mimi”, is the calm center of the clan whirlwind, and does excellent work with the character.  Interestingly, the character was written as male, but the gender switch works just fine.  Meredith Rose and Drew Carlton, as Alice’s parents, “Penny and Paul Sycamore”,  do really great work with their mini-character arcs, and show a nice range of acting over the course of the show.  While Tori Denslow, as “Alice”, missed on her instincts for the character, and wasn’t steered back on track, she still gives us a very lively and interesting character who is fun to watch.  Jessica Miller and Ben Matthews, as “Essie and Ed Carmichael” seem like they were born for these roles, and fit the characters wonderfully.  Shaneada Mason, as “Rheba”, Richard Bransford, as “Donald”, and Skyler Mittman, as “Mr. DePinna”, all clearly had a lot of fun in their roles, and nicely filled out the remainder of permanent residents in the Vanderhof household.  Kyle Vellacott-Ford, as the ballet teacher “Kolenkhov”, seems to think that a Russian accent means speaking loudly with a gruff voice, but still takes the stage with authority, and is a joy to watch.  Damien Peters and Julia Morrison, as “Mr. and Mrs Kirby” hit just the right notes of uptight, proper behavior.  Peters’ character arc is particularly challenging in the final scene, and he handles it with aplomb.  Jonathan Little, as “Tony Kirby”, does an excellent job of portraying Alice’s love interest.  One would wish for a little more of the upper-crust body language at the beginning, as Tony would have learned from his father, but Little still nails the most important element–his love for Alice.

Bubba Godsey’s set is simply amazing, and it’s hard to believe it’s a temporary construction in the space.  Sight lines are perfect for everyone, and the design allows for smooth traffic flow by the large cast.  Godsey’s lighting is great as well, keeping all the action well-lit, representing several different times of day and illumination levels.  Given that the audience is a mere few feet from the action on two sides of the stage, accomplishing this without blinding anyone is an extra achievement.  The only quibble on the lights might be a suggestion that the blackout at the end of Act One not happen quite so quickly, to ensure the entire audience has time to absorb what has just happened before the stage is plunged into darkness.  Angela Green’s costumes nicely complement each of the characters, and add nice touches of comedy when needed.  Her choreography made the curtain call about three times longer than it needed to be, but it was very nice, and fit the period.

Overall, a very pleasant evening.  While not perfect, this still makes for an excellent evening’s entertainment.  There are many laugh-out-loud moments, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with something in my eye at the end of the show.  It is absolutely worth the drive over to Decatur to see.   Except for Monday, the show runs every day until Saturday April 9th.  Show times and ticket information are here.