A staple play for community theaters and high school productions for sixty years, THE CURIOUS SAVAGE, by John Patrick, is now on stage at Old Academy Players in Philadelphia’s East Falls section. You may recognize Patrick’s name from two other of his well-known and often produced plays, The Teahouse of the August Moon, and Everybody Loves Opal. Though originally starring the great Lillian Gish in the leading role, the play’s Broadway debut closed on November 18, 1950, after only 31 performances.
This is a feel-good play filled with heart in its contrasts of avarice with generosity. Ethel Savage, a new widow has been left with a substantial fortune for which her three grown children; a senator, a judge and a gold-digger of a daughter, are intent on keeping her from disposing any way she chooses. So they conspire to have her committed to a private sanatorium known as “The Cloisters”. There Ethel is left to work out how she will deal with her spiteful offspring, while getting to know five colorful characters who are long-term patients in the same facility.
Susan Lonker, an Old Academy Players regular, offers a sympathetic and somewhat subdued portrayal of Ethel Savage. Paul Gordon and Cary Gottlieb as Ethel’s senator and judge sons are appropriately obnoxious in their roles which call for them to be considerably bombastic in their relationship both with their put-upon mother as well as with their mother’s well-intentioned fellow Cloisters inmates. Courtney Bambrick fills the stage with her booming voice and wonderful facial expressions as Ethel’s vainglorious daughter, Lilly Belle, who demonstrates little patience for her mother’s sentiments regarding alternative ways in which the fortune could be put to good use. Together Ethel’s three offspring well represent the spirit of avarice against which Ethel must find the strength to resist.
As she gets to know the five other residents on her ward, Ethel discovers through their generosity of spirit her own inner conviction to do what she has to do to fend off her loathsome brood. Each of her fellow Cloister inmates is uniquely drawn and brings to the story special elements of charm and sensitivity. Kristin Foreman as Florence, the delusion-ridden mother, is a delight to watch as she portrays with tragic eloquence in both her voice and movement the inner sorrow of her character who struggles nonetheless to bestow only peace and happiness to all others. As the love-starved Fairy May, Rachel Brodeur conveys just the right mix of gregariousness and fragility in her energetic performance.
The three other residents who each in their own special way befriend Ethel are: Hannibal (Thomas Abraham), a former statistician who now thinks of himself as a violinist; Jeffrey (Carl Levie) a former fighter pilot who still carries an imaginary scar from his war experience; and Mrs Paddy (Michelle Moscicki) who can only recite lists of things she hates and who gave up any other form of talking one day when her husband told her to “shut up”. Rounding out the list of characters in THE CURIOUS SAVAGE is Dr. Emmett, played by T.J. DeLuca, who does an excellent job of making this difficult part believable. And, as the doctor’s nurse assistant, Miss Willie, Marisa Block is also skillful in portraying her character’s dual role in this unfolding comedy-drama.
Adding to fun of seeing this production is its location in a historic building upon whose stage Grace Kelly and Robert Prosky took their earliest steps as actors. It’s a bit tricky to find, situated as it is in the East Falls neighborhood behind the former Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. However, for historic community theater lovers, it’s worth mapquesting. They also do a terrific job of displaying photos of nearly all of their past productions in an upstairs room in which intermission refreshments are served.
THE CURIOUS SAVAGE
by John Patrick
Directed by Paul Muscarella
April 29 – May 15, 2011
Old Academy Players
3544 Indian Queen Ln
Philadelphia, PA 19129