REVIEW: 'See How They Run' at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre

By: Oct. 25, 2009
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Phillip King's See How They Run is classic British farce at its best - complete with mistaken identities, hilarious hijinks and at least four collar-wearing wannabe vicars - and it's given a top-notch production by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, under the confident lead of director Charles Burr and his exceptional cast.

Burr's even-handed direction and his unerring eye and ear for what is truly funny ensure that King's circa 1940s script is winningly interpreted and offers further proof that good farce, no matter its age, remains highly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. With Burr's expertly cast ensemble enacting the ridiculously absurd situations, you have a winning combination that will delight audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

See How They Run has been a theatrical staple since its London premiere in the mid-'40s and it's easy to understand why: The plot focuses on a moderately uptight English vicar named Lionel Toop (Nate Eppler) and his young wife Penelope (Stefani Paige), a former American actress whose unorthodox behavior has made her the subject of much gossip in their picturesque village. Unfortunately, for the vicar and his wife, and yet fortunately for the audience, the chief gossipmonger Miss Skillon (Erin Parker) continues to stoke the fire and keep tongues a-wagging with her constant attention to the goings-on at the vicarage.

When the vicar is unexpectedly called out of town on the eve of the village's Harvest Festival and an old friend (J. Dietz Osborne) of his wife happens to show up, you can rest assured that all manner of wackiness will transpire, not the least of which is the arrival of an overly dramatic bishop (Derek Whittaker) and the escape of a pinko Commie spy (Lane Wright) from a nearby military brig. Oh, and then there's the oversexed and slightly addled housekeeper (Tammie Whited), a visiting vicar (Eric Tichenor) come to deliver the Harvest Festival sermon, and a somewhat dimwitted gendarme (Flynt Foster) who also take part in the shenanigans.

King's script very artfully and creatively ties together all the play's disparate elements in a delightfully skewed package that keeps audiences intrigued and, I daresay, even guessing what will happen next. Despite the fact that the play's been around since forever, it remains fresh and offers modern playwrights a textbook case study of how to assemble a credible farce.

Yet even with a script that fairly crackles with droll comic intensity, you must have a truly capable cast to bring the characters to life with a sense of abandon, while remaining somehow naturalistic and earthbound (if you want to sell your bill of goods to a discerning audience). Thankfully, Burr's cast is nothing short of wonderful.

Eppler is ideally cast as the vicar, once again displaying a comedic grace and versatility that is his stock in trade. If there is a Nashville actress who could look more like a '40s era pinup girl, we simply can't think of anyone more suited to the role than Paige, who gives a winsome performance that evokes images of every actress from that era that we can remember. Osborne, of course, is unparalleled in his portrayal of the worldly wise, almost caddish, but thoroughly charming, American actor turned soldier who ends up playing one of the wannabe vicars.

Whited is quite good as Ida, the vicarage's housekeeper, despite the fact that her accent seemed to be a bit all over the map. The very tall Wright (why doesn't someone mount a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace for this towering actor?) is visually funny as the escaped Communist spy (talk about making some dated material work) and delivers his lines with an authentic, yet somehow stilted, Boris and Natasha-inspired Russian accent, which nonetheless rings very true. Tichenor, as the visiting minister, gives a veritable tour de force comedic performance in his cameo role, making the most of his short time onstage to create a terrifically funny characterization. The young and handsome Foster is fine as Sgt. Towers and is confident enough to play his role somewhat buffoonish in order to garner the audience's approval and laughter.

The fact remains, however, that the other two members of the cast are the ones who gave such tremendously over-the-top comic performances that we'll keep laughing about them for weeks to come. Derek Whittaker is superb as the visiting Bishop of Lax (who also happens to be Penelope's uncle; it's explained that she was born in England, but her family moved to the States when she was a child), giving a outlandishly appealing take on the role, what with his blend of double-takes, pratfalls and the like.

But my hat is off to Erin Parker who gives the evening's most inspired performance. You may find yourself looking twice at Parker and your program to prove to yourself that it is truly she who is hiding behind Miss Skillon's tweedy suit and sensible shoes (and rather large backside). Trust me, Parker's completely self-assured performance alone is well worth the price of a ticket; the rest of the production's successes only add to the overall effect of this winning comedy.

And, certainly, no mention of the production's winning elements would be complete without a salute to the costume-and-wig-designing wunderkind Billy Ditty, who may not be a "kind" anymore, but his slightly askew creativity results in a comic vision that is perfect for this farce.

--See How They Run. By Phillip King. Directed by Charles Burr. Produced by Janie and John Chaffin. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville. Through November 15. For reservations, call (615) 646-9977 or visit the company's website at www.dinnertheatre.com.

photo of Stefani Paige, Derek Whittaker, J. Dietz Osborne and Nate Eppler by Flealips Photography



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