Barbara Andres (‘Mama’) sits at the head of the table, surrounded left to right by Heather MacRae, Dale Soules, Rita Gardner, Louise Sorel (back to camera) and Mia Katigbak in “I Remember Mama,” entering its final week at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
A cast of 10 veteran actresses — each over the age of 60 — playing the parts of some two dozen women, men and children. One big extended family that encompasses mama, papa, big/ little kids, a caring curmudgeon of an uncle, a trio of contrary aunts, a local undertaker, a dying cat, plus a broke boarder with a storyteller’s gift. And in place of the play’s all-important kitchen table, this version’s got 10.
Putting up eight more matinee and evening performances between June 22 and 26, the John Van Druten ensemble drama “I Remember Mama” closes out the 2015-2016 season at Two River Theater with a staging that lends a bit of cutting-edge cool to the warmly sentimental story of a Norwegian-American community, a dreamer of a daughter, and the Mama who could reputedly fix anything (and maybe even work the odd miracle).
Adapted from Kathryn Forbes’ autobiographical novel “Mama’s Bank Account,” the play is set up as a series of vignettes from one close-knit family’s experience in early 20th century San Francisco. While those experiences don’t include the spectacular earthquake of ’06, there are dramatic and comedic highs and lows — revolving around new love, old squabbles, graduations, sacrifices, dreams, death, illness, and money — that are each in its own way as earth-shaking as anything life could throw at us.
Most of all there is Mama, and her kitchen table, and her all-important household budget that must be balanced against the disparate needs of the family members. Originally produced Off Broadway by New York’s Transport Group (and directed by that show’s developer, Jack Cummings III), the Two River staging arrived in Red Bank with nearly all of its cast members intact — including Barbara Andres in the title role, for which she received a coveted Drama Desk Award nomination.
A newcomer to the cast, Mia Katigbak, plays daughter Katrin, the “dramatic one” in the household and the person whose diary entries (subsequently fashioned into a published story) frame the various shadowbox scenes of this “memory play.” While Katigbak and Andres concentrate upon their stand-alone roles, the rest of the people in their world — from immediate family members, right down to the 1944 script’s walk-on bellboys and receptionists — are portrayed by a fairly amazing troupe of women whose collective credits encompass the original casts of “Hair” and “The Fantasticks,” multiplex movies like “The Hunger Games,” and TV shows spanning “Star Trek” to “Orange is the New Black.”
Tops in that supporting cast, and blessed with a couple of the best-written parts in the show (scene-stealing Uncle Chris; financially impoverished but intellectually enriched boarder Mr. Hyde) is Lynn Cohen, a player who many will recognize as Magda from “Sex and the City.” She’s joined in the busy proceedings by Alice Cannon, Rita Gardner, Susan Lehman, Heather Macrae, Louise Sorel, Dale Soules, and another relative newcomer, Marjorie Johnson. Wearing contemporary casual clothes throughout, the actors quickly put the production’s central “gimmick” to rest as they work to breathe life into a set of characters who are more than just funny accents and eccentricities.
Even those who remember and cherish the 1948 Hollywood adaptation with Irene Dunne might be surprised by how director Cummings brings out the playwright’s sharply written words, a script that seldom veers toward the sentimentally sticky, even as it reinforces Mama Hanson as one who knows when to keep her family closely nested — and when to allow certain of its members the chance to flap their wings. The director has also made some oddball choices in the staging, from the cluttered sea of tables and chairs that represent the play’s many settings (a bit of a logjam that sometimes presents some awkward moments in the general blocking and flow of traffic), to a final few moments that could have come from the David Lynch playbook.
With tickets still available for the majority of this week’s eight performances, “Mama” has been drawing some favorable reviews, with redbankgreen‘s Tom Chesek observing in the Asbury Park Press that the production “is as cheerfully diffuse, defiantly subjective and strangely revisionist as memory itself… a kitchen-table safari to the soul that’s captained by ten wise Mamas; no waiting.” The New York Times called it “a lovely and peculiar production.” NJ.com said the production “certainly retains the sentimentality inherent to the play, but it couples it with an intriguing concern about a weakening force of family.”
Take it here for tickets ($20 – $65) — and go to tworivertheater.org for details on a June 23 lecture about “The Importance of Ancestry and Antiques,” presented by Riverbank Antiques dealer/collector Bill Ditto as part of a special series of TEDx talks at Two River.