OREM — Ethel Savage (Karen Baird) is the widow of a multimillionaire. She decides to place his ten million dollar fortune into a fund to help ordinary people achieve their dreams. Naturally this plan is looked on with abhorrence by Ethel’s snooty and selfish stepchildren: Titus, a senator (Reese Phillip Purser); Lilly Belle, a socialite/divorcee (Alexis Boss); and Samuel, a judge (Brett Griffith). When Ethel refuses to change her plans and the ten million dollars disappears, her stepchildren place her in a sanitarium hoping she will spill the beans about where the cash is hidden.
So Ethel, perfectly sane, finds herself the newest resident of the Cloisters, a home for people who are—well, not quite “all there.” Each has a particular quirk that makes it difficult for them to inhabit the world outside. There’s Jeff (Nick Grossaint), who believes he was terribly scarred in World War II; Florence (Tracy Whitlock), who is in denial about the death of her young son; Fairy May (Heidi Smith Anderson), a fantasist who obsesses over how much other people love her; Hannibal (Daniel Hess), a gifted statistician who, after losing his job to a machine, now saws away at the violin despite being unable to play; and Mrs. Paddy (Melany Wilkins), who seldom speaks except to list all the things she hates (pretty much everything). The caring staff include Dr. Emmett (Larson Holyoak) who runs the institution, and the nurse Miss Willie (Bethany R. Woodruff). When the aptly named Savage stepchildren make plans to ambush Ethel, her new friends all step in to help.
Such is the basic story of John Patrick‘s classic comedy The Curious Savage. At its center is Karen Baird, a Utah theatre classic in her own right, delightfully droll as Ethel. Despite moments in which her lines were a little slow in coming, Baird charmed me with consistent pluck and grace. The most lovable aspect of Ethel is the ease with which she greets her fellow patients; instead of protesting her own wellbeing or mocking those around her, she settles into the Cloisters and befriends everyone. Baird makes a wonderful mother figure, and while it’s sad to see Ethel’s legal children treat her with disdain, it’s almost forgotten by her immediate, unconditional acceptance into the Cloisters family.
This really is a stand-out ensemble, though. They are almost completely single cast, a first for me at the Hale Orem (although Howard Fullmer plays Samuel every other night), and I think that continuity contributes to the their excellent chemistry and rhythm. As Fairy May and Hannibal respectively, Anderson and Hess are particularly winning. Anderson is a fairy, flitting effortlessly from place to place physically and emotionally. Hannibal is a teddy bear who just wants somewhere to belong; Hess’s genuine portrayal of him often made me forget I was watching a comedy, a lapse I didn’t mind at all.
John Patrick’s script has its pros and cons. Yes, it’s very funny—it relies upon fabulous one-liners and non sequiturs which are thrown expertly about the stage. However, the play has a lot of sweetness lurking beneath the comedy. While I love a tearjerker as much as anyone, Patrick lays things on a little thick, especially at the finale. It goes on too long, ending with a coda I personally found manipulative. Thank goodness for seasoned director Laurie Harrop-Purser and her fine cast, who bring superb timing and personality to the piece; I appreciate how they manage to just toe the line between saccharine and sweet.
Harrop-Purser uses the wee Hale space expertly, and her staging feels organic, never forced or fake. Because of the ensemble dynamic at its core, Savage works very well in the round, permitting a welcome naturalness to come out in the action. Harrop-Purser handles the play’s aforementioned sentimentality with a light touch, letting the characters—and the actors who play them—shine far above the silliness of the plot. I genuinely cared for these people, and wanted them to be well and happy.
There is a definite familial quality to the play, as this group of misfits has created a place where they can accept and are accepted. Bobby Swenson‘s warm and cozy unit set produces a feeling of home. It doesn’t feel sterile or chilly, but rather like a living room, very much lived in, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Maryann Hill‘s costumes set us in the right time—1950—and gently emphasize each deliberate personality.
The Curious Savage is a fun night out, a clever lesson in what family is and is not, with laughs and warm fuzzies for all.