One of the American theatre’s most enduring plays, “You Can’t Take It With You,” is still as relevant today as it was in was when it premiered on Broadway in 1936 and played for 838 performances. A Pulitzer Prize-winner, the zany comedy, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, which I saw Friday on opening night, is closing the Indiana Repertory Theatre 2018-2019 season, running on the One America Mainstage through May 19.
The story’s plot centers on sweet and sunny Alice Sycamore, who is in love with earnest banker Tony Kirby. But when she invites her snooty, prospective in-laws to dinner to give their blessing to the marriage, they show up on the wrong night. Alice’s quirky family includes stoic grandfather Martin Vanderhof, who doesn’t believe in paying taxes, doting mother Penelope, who writes plays and paints, badly, father Paul, who makes fireworks a hobby, guileless, ballerina sister Essie, who “stinks” as a dancer, according to her fiery Russian teacher, Boris Kolenkhov. Adding to the screwball antics of the Sycamore household are other assorted eccentric characters as well. Ultimately, they all prove to be too unconventional for the straight-laced Kirbys, as all hell breaks loose in this hilarious collision of class and lifestyles.
As far as the play’s relevance, though it was written during the Great Depression, the preoccupation with money and the bottom line versus the quest for happiness in a material world continues unabated today. Our country’s current focus on immigration and the controversy that surrounds it, including the rise in hate crimes, also makes the play’s commentary about inclusivity, tolerance and acceptance pertinent to present-day concerns.
Peter Amster, a regular IRT guest director, adeptly guided the 18-member cast of actors. The racial diversity of the company reflects non-traditional casting, a practice that IRT, the premier professional theatre in Indiana, has pioneered in the region and one, in itself, that serves as a potent statement regarding inclusivity. Amster’s blocking of the farcical comings and goings of the zany Sycamore clan was notable for its effectiveness in illustrating the constant mayhem happening in the family’s home.
With all deserving of praise, each cast member exhibited superb timing, plus comedic and dramatic skill in portraying their individual characters, most of whom exhibit oddball idiosyncrasies. Standing out were Milicent Wright as Penelope Sycamore, whose cherry disposition and love for her family knows no bounds, Robert Elliott, as the philosophical family patriarch, who practices what he preaches about living in the moment, Jan Lucas as Olga, a pre-Russian Revolution Grand Duchess, who is employed as a waitress, David Lively as the stern and humorless Mr. Kirby, for whom making money is everything and Carmen Roman, who plays his prim and refined wife Miriam with a passion for Spiritualism.
Major kudos go to Linda Buchanan for her extraordinary scenic design of the Sycamore’s living room, reflecting the 30s period in which the play is set, filled with one of the most astounding assortment of props I have ever seen. Though I never strayed too far from the action of the play and did stay connected, my eyes did wander toward the art, photos and tchotchkes that filled the space. Congratulations go out to IRT’s props department for this remarkable effort.
Also deserving of plaudits is Tracy Dorman for her costume design, which impeccably captures the 30s era.
Another theme of “You Can’t Take It With You,” one which resonated with me the most, is the importance of family, whether blood or chosen. Coming from a family of nine children and a home in which pandemonium sometimes ruled, the Sycamore family life is very familiar and one which made me feel like I had binged on comfort food. But make no mistake, the feeling I had upon leaving the theatre was one of total satisfaction after two hours and 25 minutes of joyous escapism.
For tickets and information about “You Can’t Take It With You,” call (317) 635-5252 or visit irtlive.org.