BWW Review: THE CURIOUS SAVAGE at Hershey Area Playhouse
In the vast realm of theatre, there are shows of all moods and temperaments to be found. Many contemporary shows now seem to have taken a bit of a turn towards dark humor, such as in HEATHERS, or towards a study of today's society, such as DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Recently, it can sometimes seem difficult to find a show that prides itself on a cast of characters that inspire nothing but joy and help to convey messages of love and self-exploration. However, this is exactly the kind of warm-and-fuzzy feeling that one comes away with thanks to Hershey Area Playhouse and their production of THE CURIOUS SAVAGE.
THE CURIOUS SAVAGE is a comedic play written by the noteable John Patrick, and first premiered on Broadway on October 24th, 1950, when it opened at the Martin Beck Theatre (now known as the Al Hirschfeld Theatre). The show centers around Mrs. Ethel P. Savage, a wealthy widow who has been left with ten million dollars from her late husband. Despite her station, she has been committed to a sanitorium known as The Cloisters by order of her step-children, all of whom believe her to be senile and wishing to locate the money that their mother has claimed to have hidden. While at the Cloisters, Mrs. Savage befriends the residents, a group of lovable patients who open her eyes the the real joy and kindness of the world. The show is incredibly touching, and this is due largely to the wonderful talent displayed by the cast.
At the show's opening, we are introduced to the residents of the Cloisters, who each possess their own brand of charm that wins over the audience with no hesitation. The first of these is Fairy May, a young women with plain features who believes herself to be indescribably lovely and often displays a tendency for exaggeration. She is played by Kristi Hill, who completely inhabits her character without fail. Her Fairy is enthusiastic, excitable, and has a vivid imagination that often leads to her wild "retellings" of her past. Fairy is simply bursting with energy, and is quick with a quip despite often managing to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. However, her candor is matched with equal amounts of kindness, and Hill walks this line perfectly. Her line delivery and stage presence is witty and full of youth, making her character just as whimsical as her name. Fairy's state of mind has left her with a flair for the dramatic that often renders her happy but high-strung, exasperating yet entertaining, and Hill portrays each one of these traits incredibly well. Fairy nearly instantly becomes an audience favorite, and we come to care for her just as much as the rest of the Cloisters guests.
One of these guests is Florence Williams, played by Sarah Tapparo. Her Florence is prim and proper right from the start, always well-put together and displaying a subtle kind of elegance that makes the audience wonder how she found herself in a sanitorium. She is both motherly and obedient, and obviously wants the best for each of her fellow residents as well as for her young son, John Thomas. Her caring nature practically radiates from Tapparo's stage presence, as well as her equally potent need to follow the rules and remain morally upright. Tapparo also does a commendable job displaying Florence's practicality and her need to always remember her manners. Her dedication to her friends and to her son is touching, but is tinged with a bit of sadness that adds layers to her character and makes her more than simply the "mother" of the group.
Hannibal is yet another Cloisters resident, and is played by Dan Walmer. Arguably the most sane of the group, Hannibal is exceedingly kind and admirably intelligent and rational in his own right. As a former statistician, he has adapted to his new environment systematically, developing a pattern for his life and sticking to it. Walmer's Hannibal is sophisticated and selfless, always offering his services or advice for those who need it no matter the situation. In spite of his logical nature, he is still a bit of a dreamer, and Walmer displays this well in his stage presence. While his inflection and line delivery is occasionally a bit flat and could use more variation, Walmer on the whole creates a fine character that the audience is very fond of.
Mike Ritter plays Jeff, the young former Air Force pilot who has resided in the Cloisters ever since the war. He has lost much of his memory as a result of his plane being shot down, and is under the delusion that he sports a hideous scar on his face that is in fact not there at all. Despite his memory loss, Jeff is just as intelligent as Hannibal and just as proper as Florence. He carries himself with the utmost dignity and poise, and is often profound when he wants to be. He is unflinchingly honest, but remains largely sweet and sympathetic as the show goes on. Ritter's Jeff is simply lovable, and he still possess the sophistication and talent that he had treasured before his accident. He has lost so much but still has kept his sights on what he feels to be the important things in life, and Ritter makes this quite clearly through his performance. Like Walmer, Ritter could benefit from some variation in inflection during his line delivery, but moments where he clearly and fully inhabits the character are where he truly shines.
The inhabitants of the Cloisters are a hodgepodge of characters, ones that by all means should not fit together but somehow manage to do so anyway. They are collectively wise and exceedingly kind, and as a result of their extended time together have developed a sort of logic all their own. They have created a routine for their life and largely enjoy sticking to it, and yet are welcoming and accepting of change, Each resident earns a place in the heart of the audience, and are some of the most admirable characters that this reviewer has seen in theatre. They care without conditions and are fiercely protective of their own, and the bond that they all clearly share warms the heart. Even grumpy Mrs. Paddy (JoEllen Myers), the eldest member of the Cloisters who claims to "hate everything in the world," still has moments of both comedy and emotion when she mixes herself into the show's proceedings. They are very obviously unique and yet all work together well as a unit, much to the credit of the show's cast. Moments where they plan and conspire together are equally entertaining and sweet, and are made even better when the infamous Mrs. Savage is thrown into the mix.
As the center of the show, Marcie Warner does a spectacular job of bringing Ethel P. Savage to life. She is a master of manipulation, but often uses it not for evil, but for the all-too-amusing frustration of her snobbish step-children. Warner's Mrs. Savage is nothing if not perceptive; she knows exactly what the rest of the world thinks of her, and remains completely self-aware. While on occasion letting some of her sadness and bitterness towards her situation shine through, Warner's Mrs. Savage is more than often charming and witty, radiating confidence and wisdom. She is a natural conversationalist, a trait accentuated by Warner's very realistic stage presence, and she often spins many yarn to the rest of the residents. Mrs. Savage is not nearly as senile as her children believe her to be, but there is still a dreamer in her. She has not been beaten down by the harsh realities of life, and has learned to follow her heart's desires even in her old age, such as becoming an actress after the passing of her husband. While being institutionalized has somewhat dampened her spirits, Warner's Mrs. Savage refuses to go quietly. She has creativity and enthusiasm, which she employs both to the benefit of her fellow Cloisters patients and to the chagrin of her children.
Her interactions with the other residents are touching; she is quite an influence on them, and is changed by them in return. They benefit from her wisdom, and she from theirs. Mrs. Savage is caring and understanding towards them, and encourages them in every way possible. However, Mrs. Savage is still determined to right the wrongs her family has done her. Her relationship with her children is strained; there is obviously much resentment and animosity between them, and Warner makes the transition between sweet and sour quite easily. She knows exactly how to play her children like a fiddle, and her antics with them are incredibly entertaining. In fact, Warner possess some of the best comedic timing of the show, and this combined with her line delivery result in many of the bigger laughs. However, the sage, wise side to her character is equally enjoyable, and this is a clear sign of both Warner's versatility as an actor and her success in winning over the audience. Mrs. Savage is a character that we adore, and her children are precisely the opposite.
Titus, Lillybelle, and Samuel Savage are played by Mike Barber, Lorie Kimmel, and Jack Ferry respectively, and they collectively give off a snobbish air as soon as they enter the room. Each of Mrs. Savage's children are more spoiled than the last, and smell horribly of entitlement. Barber and Ferry's characters are both on a high tier in the government, as a congressman and a judge, and both carry themselves with the perceived dignity that comes with such a position. They are concerned only with wealth and do not seem to care that much of the community loathes them, and are just as foolish and indignant as their sister, Lillybelle. Kimmel portrays this dislikable woman with a flair for the overdramatic and an air of high maintenance and selfishness that succeeds in turning the audience against her. She is boundlessly bitter and very obviously considers to be above the common people. Her manner is haughty, and Kimmel does an excellent job of delivering lines and displaying a physicality that portraying a selfish woman who lives only in the material world. She clearly does not care much for the fate of her mother, although occasionally tries to convince others (and more than likely herself) that she does. Her facial expressions are particularly impressive, and Barber and Ferry could occasionally benefit from pushing the envelope onstage in the way that Kimmel does. However, they create a trio of siblings who live only for money, and it is enjoyable to watch Mrs. Savage play games with their fragile egos.
The residents of the Cloisters would be nothing without the staff that helps provide for them, and this is exactly the purpose that the characters of Miss "Willy" Wilhelmina and Dr. Emmett provide. Played by Shelby Snyder and Harry Menear, the nurse and the doctor both see to it that the patients they care for are provided for. Sydner's Miss Willy is incredibly caring and nurturing, exactly as you would expect her to be, and her selfless nature counteracts that of the Savage children perfectly. She helps and assists wherever she is needed, and seems to possess an endless supply of patience for the Cloisters residents and their antics.
Snyder has an excellent stage presence, one of the most natural and at ease of the show, and her line delivery always seems to burst with sincerity and kindness, especially when addressing the patients. However, she proves to have a bit of a rebellious streak, and this is equally interesting as the nurse who simply loves her work. Menear's Dr. Emmett also displays a profound dedication to his craft, and this is evident in his treatment of the Cloisters residents. He is clearly wise and knowledgeable, and holds himself to a code of ethics that serves him well throughout the show. He is reasonable, and obviously wants only the best for his patients. He has a way with the group that no one else seems to have, and this makes him all the more trustworthy. Menear's Dr. Emmett refuses to let any harm come to the little family that has become the Cloisters residences, a family that the audience feels they have come to know very well.
THE CURIOUS SAVAGE at Hershey Area Playhouse is, at it's core, an incredibly inspiring and uplifting story. It tugs at heartstrings that the audience does not expect, and leaves them with a sense of renewed faith in the good of human nature. The talent on display in this show only serves to further the joy that the show itself sparks, and makes it a tale worth telling again and again. THE CURIOUS SAVAGE is a show for those in need of a lift, and will satisfy even the most curious among us.
Presented by Hershey Area Playhouse through October 15th. Next is A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Visit www.hersheyareaplayhouse.com.