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A CurtainUp Review
I Remember Mama
By Elyse Sommer
The Mama of Jack Cummings III's revival of I Remember Mama is certainly not the one you're likely to remember. Depending on your age, that would be the 1940s Broadway hit, the TV series, or the still available DVD movie. Your memory of Mama Olson might even be based on John Van Druten's inspiration for his play, Katherine Forbes' fictionalized memoir Mama's Bank Account.
But if you've been following Mr. Cummings' Transport Group, you'll recognize this re-conceptualized, entertaining if a tad gimmicky approach as yet another example of the company's mission of "visually progressive productions of emotionally classic stories" that remain true to the the source script. The 2002 revival of Our Town also required the audience members to stretch their imaginations to buy into a sixty-something Emily and George and teen aged girl as the town manager. Transport's Hello Again in 2009 and Boys in the Band a year later had these new productions play out in large open spaces rather than typical theaters.
I Remember Mama as staged in Transport's current home, the Gym at Judson, certainly challenges its audience. Besides buying into the novel casting, viewers must connect the ten tables and the props they're set with to the character and plot elements, and see each as a room. (Since this audience is seated all around Dane Laffrey's scenery, they're free to examine the memorabilia on those tables close up before the show and during the intermission). The scenic set up expedites getting into the novelty of the casting. Still, the gray-haired Barbara Barrie as young Katrin the family chronicler, does take some getting used to; as does Heather MacRae as Nels, the role with which Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut.
But there's nothing cutting edge about this sentimental saga of a Norwegian immigrant family which, by dint of hard work and a nurturing "Mama," achieves the American Dream of having the kids with a good education and fulfilling lofty ambitions. However, while London Wall, another Van Druten play, works well in its traditional current revival at the Mint Company ( my review ), a similar take for I Remember Mama would probably come off as too hokey and dated. On the other hand, once you get past the initial shock of seeing this septuagenarian, all female, multi-tasking cast, you'll be rewarded with an enjoyable two hours of something old and still emotionally appealing made new again.
The actors, all seasoned performers, are terrific. They ably tackle all the roles, including the much younger characters and the male ones. Barbara Andres (who also played the teen-aged Emily in the above mentioned Our Town, captures the strength, determination and warmth of the matriarch.
Andres' Mama is the glue that holds this production and the Olson family together during its comic and more serious situations. She chairs the weekly session to deal with the family budget, supports her spinster sister Tricia's (Rita Gardner) claim to marital happiness and reigns in her mean-spirited sisters Sigrid (Susan Lehman) and Jenny (Alice Cannon). Mama also manages to get past hospital protocol to be at young Dagmar's (Phyllis Somerville) bedside after an emergency operation. When aspiring writer Katrin loses heart, leave it to Mama to find a way to help Katrin persevere and triumph.
Lynn Cohen can be forgiven for a bit of scenery chewing since she plays two of the showiest and most interesting roles: The outspoken alcoholic Uncle Chris and the somewhat mysterious boarder Mr. Hyde who enthralls the family with nightly readings from his vast collection of the books on his table— oops, I mean in his room.
Try to arrive early enough to check out the photo display of I Remember Mama's stage and screen history which includes a musical. You'll also want to take a close look at the photos of the actors since you won't get a program until the end (an increasingly common and rather annoying practice).
If you go out for a post show treat, don't expect to pay fifteen cents for coffee and an ice cream as Mama does when she takes Katrin for a treat. Her nickel tip is actually more than today's customary twenty per cent.