“I Remember Mama” at the Transport Group at the Gym at Judson (Closed Sunday April 30, 2014)

March 31, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags: ,
Written by John Van Druten
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Reviewed by David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

“I Remember Mama” at the Transport Group at the Gym at Judson (Through Sunday April 30, 2014)
Written by John Van Druten
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Reviewed by David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

Memory is a tricky thing. Remembering events from one’s past is fraught with complications. Like
dreaming, remembering puts the one remembering in complete control of the end product. When
Katrin (Barbara Barrie) decides to write about her family, she has to reconstruct the events from her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. And in that process of reconstruction, Katrin becomes the delightful unreliable narrator whose account of the events in the house on Steiner Street is at the heart of John Van Druten’s “I Remember Mama” currently playing at the Gym at Judson, home of the Transport Group’s 2014 Season.

Director Jack Cummings III and the creative team for “I Remember Mama” have designed the production with the human mind in mind. Ten dining room tables (each with eight chairs) – one for each actor – are spread across the stage nestled right up to the first row of chairs. A second tier of chairs completes the seating for the audience. Dimply lighted with only light cord-hand pendants, the stage resembles the “canyons of the mind” with their secretive and shadowy crevices of memory. And in these crevices, memories of Katrin’s life scramble across the stage. The inhabitants of these memories – parents, siblings, aunts, cousins, boarders – are all played by ten Broadway veterans. Age and sex matter not in memory so all ten play characters of all ages and both sexes.

Alice Cannon is perfect as “bossy” Aunt Jenny whom Katrin likes “the least.” Lynn Cohen doubles as the shifty boarder Mr. Hyde who leaves the family with a useless check to pay off his accumulated room and board and the feisty and irascible Uncle Chris. Rita Gardner shines in her role as Aunt Trina who discovers she is in love and wants to marry. Susan Lehman is splendid as the whining and complaining Aunt Sigrid. Heather MacRae plays both the ever-constant Nels and Aunt Trina’s love interest Mr. Thorkelsen, giving each character a distinct and memorable personality. Phyllis Somerville’s Dagmar is the picture-perfect “littlest sister” who has yet to see the dawn. Lousie Sorel shows the audience a sister willing to do anything to assure Nels can go to high school and the poet F. D. Moorhead who challenges Katrin to be a writer. And Dale Soules gives the audience a Papa (with pipe) who knows how to care for his family while deferring to Mama’s strength and resolve. Ms. Soules also portrays the physician who treats Dagmar and Cousin Arne.

Only Barbara Andres (Mama) and Barbara Barrie (Katrin) have unique roles to play and they develop their respective characters with impeccable craft. Ms. Andres’ Mama gathers her brood with unflinching care and knows how to trade her old world Norwegian recipes for Ms. Moorehead’s attentive reading of Katrin’s stories. Ms. Barrie owns the stage as the story’s narrator Katrin, moving into and out of time and discovering her talent as a writer by remembering Mama. Unfortunately, Dane Laffrey’s set and R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting do not do justice to the enormous craft of these ten actors. The decision to leave actors in the dark, moving them so far from audience members that they can be barely heard or seen without considerable craning of necks is questionable and puzzling. Somehow a concept with promise was executed with confusion.

Ultimately what matters in Mr. Van Druten’s memory play is the importance of family, tradition, identity, and purpose. The cast manages to convey these important themes with dignity and grace. Unfortunately, Mr. Cummings and his creative team do not treat the actors with equal dignity and grace. It is somewhat unconscionable to leave these splendid women unlighted, unseen, and unheard for long periods at a time. Those sitting in the “upper tier” fared better sight lines; however, seating location could not compensate for inadequate lighting and difficulty in hearing the important spoken word and the significant facial expressions and gestures of the cast.

Despite these shortcomings, it is worth the visit to see ten outstanding actors bring life to a venerable and timely drama.