PERRY — There are few plays that I would be willing to go almost anywhere to watch at the drop of a hat. John Patrick’s The Curious Savage is at the top of that short list. Besides the obvious joy of a show whose title feels personally relevant, Patrick’s story weaves together well placed puns, physical comedy, playful subtext, high stakes tomfoolery and a surprisingly emotional conclusion for a play that is so funny. While the drive to Perry Utah’s Heritage Theatre was a 3 hour round trip for me, I’m happy to report that I walked away fulfilled by an ending that fills me with a beautiful mixture of dysphoria, hope and many laughs. Fortunately, this isn’t a production that will “close before the reviews come out” as Mrs. Savage’s show in the play had.
So as to avoid burying the lede, the first act was underwhelming. I mentioned last year in my review of The Importance of Being Earnest in Bluffdale, that comedy suffers when it is dragged out, and Heritage’s production suffered from many of the same blunders. Often a joke set up would be delivered, a beat of silence would ensue, and then the punchline would come after a generous pause. Lines were missed or jumped, and actors struggled with the chemistry needed to get on the same page. I was prepared to be amped up as the director had come out preshow to emphatically encourage us to cheer, but it seemed that he ought to have turned and delivered his message to the cast instead. A plodding pace made an interminable first act into a “mort canard” as Mrs. Savage so often says.
This is certainly a case of the product being less than the sum of its parts. Individually both actors and production elements were solid if not spectacular. Jesse Boyce was an emphatic Hannibal whose demonic inspired screams at technology were as hilarious as they were unhinged. I loved the boyish simplicity he brought to the character that sounded exactly as irrationally confident as my six year old — certain, even when wrong and good natured regardless. Similarly, I thought Darin W. Draper might actually be a doctor as he embodied well the calm demeanor of Doctor Emmit, who, despite being surrounded by high impact personalities, remains demure and serene. I struggled to understand all of his lines even from just a few rows back, but he balanced the personalities on stage well. I was taken out of the play for a bit by the casting Dani Baysinger to play judge Samuel Savage. Baysinger, who could generously pass for seventeen was certainly not the age of a sitting judge and often lacked the character’s needed emotional depth. He did have amusing and almost flirtatious chemistry with character of Fairy Mae which brought a goofy charisma to his character, but at other times I was just baffled by his uncertain fit with his more distinguished siblings. I think the strongest performance was by Lee L. Perry who played senator Titus Savage. His barrel-chested, no nonsense politician’s airs were on point and raised the stakes of everyone else around him. As I’ll discuss below, the second act shifted dramatically and I believe his stage presence elevated the other performances to match, and carried the show to a successful ending.
Quinton Geilman created a homey unit set which gave many playing spaces for the actors to work with. Each character had an array of handsome and well suited costumes that came to a true crescendo in the show’s final moment as you see the residents of the Cloisters the way Mrs. Savage sees them in their true character. Amber Beecher’s work on them was a lift for the entire production. I was not impressed with the sound mixing however as sound effects were often blaring while microphone output was too often inconsistently leveled. I don’t know if that was opening night adjustments that will improve, but I do feel that the sound picked up as the actors gained traction through the play, and that improvement is a credit to Stephanie Bradner’s adjustment in real time. There were two offputting production elements that didn’t align with the script, which, again, I’m a bit of purist on this one. Mrs. Savage in the script talks about her blue hair where the actress playing Mrs. Savage had a lovely shock of purple hair. Second, the script’s story hinges on a teddy bear that Mrs. Savage carries with her, and in the Heritage advertising materials, bears are prevalent. There was even a stuffed bear on the stage. However, the odd choice was made to modify both script and production elements for her to carry a frog or toad. While it’s not a deal breaker, and didn’t materially change the story, it was odd to market it one way and produce it quite another.
As I mentioned, the second act picked up considerably. Gone were the miscues and awkward glances as lines were missed. No more was the pacing glacial. I wouldn’t call it frantic either, but the second act leans more into the heightened stakes of Mrs. Savage’s enforced institutionalization by her spoiled step-children and such pacing would have been amiss. Instead, it felt as though this was what the actors had been waiting for and poured their heart into. While jokes didn’t always land in act one, the second act featured actors who were motivated by their character’s objectives and who were intently focused on getting them. The plays final moments were well staged, and Mrs. Savage, played by Nancy Baker, spoke with a tenderness and vulnerability that kept the house wrapt. Her on stage chemistry with other actors — particularly Mrs. Paddy who was expertly acted by Gena K. Lott — solidified the plays earlier struggles by the time the play concluded. It was a production that left me with lots to think about and discuss with my son who joined me for the show. That is exactly what I think live theatre is intended to do.
It is my sincere hope that readers of this review, and those associated with Heritage Theatre, don’t feel I have disparaged the show. In a nutshell, it was much too slow for a straight play comedy as it approached 3 hours in length. However, it was charming, heartfelt, and brought me to tears with its sincere understanding of the humanity of all people. That’s a credit to a cast and crew that successfully put their considerable efforts into the show’s most important parts. If nothing else, simply take a leaf out of Mrs. Savage’s book and share the review saying that I called the show “Charming”, “heartfelt”, and “sincere”. Just tighten up that first act and you have a powerful and witty production on your hands.