Comedy often stems from tragedy. Certainly, many who work in the world of comedy relate stories of their own tragic backgrounds. Carol Burnett is among those ranks, with a tragic childhood and adolescence followed by a life of filling the lives and living rooms of multitudes with laughter. HOLLYWOOD ARMS is a comedic tragedy directed by Thomas-Robert Irvin for MN Players/Spotlight Theatre. Chronicling the story of a young Carol Burnett and her life of poverty, alcoholic adults, imperfect relationships and budding comedic genius, HOLLYWOOD ARMS is based on Burnett’s memoir One More Time and was co-written with her daughter, Carrie Louise Hamilton. On Broadway the show only ran for 78 performances. At MN Players/Spotlight Theatre the undertaking was a three weekend run. The boldly truthful script is written with candor and wit.
Music from the 1940’s fills the air as audiences enter. The setting is 1941, Hollywood, California. Using the stage well, the set is designed to allow for a studio bedroom, boasting a working Murphy Bed, hotel lobby and rooftop getaway, complete with a fire escape. Costumes, hair and makeup allow for a fully immersive experience, suggesting the 1940’s – 1950’s well.
The evening is for actresses, as the main characters are primarily Older and Younger Helen, Nanny, and Louise. In truth these are characters based on Burnett, her grandmother and mother respectively. Dana Corvino, as Older Helen, is glimpsed first as the story is set up in retrospect and some fond memories of childhood in Texas are encountered. Irvin uses apron and off stage areas well as to not impose upon the California setting of the bulk of the play. Corvino disappears until much later in the action.
As Older Helen begins with a glimpse of her youthful self, Young Helen is seen, as if peeking into the mind’s eye of Helen. Emily Selverian portrays Young Helen, in a demanding role for a young actor. Selverian is truthful and innocent in her portrayal which even includes a short appearance on roller skates. The script is not an easy one for a young person, including topics that are often difficult to discuss with trusted adults. Selverian is believable in her initial naiveté and the impact that Helen’s growing and diverse life experience has on her persona. Selverian’s bio in the program clearly tells the story of a devoted young actress, who hopes for a future in performance.
A great deal of the interplay of act one is between Young Helen and Nanny (Liz McCallum). There is true chemistry between these two actresses and seemingly real affection. The pacing of their scenes is especially good. McCallum portrays Nanny as a devoted worrier, who makes sure her health is what those around her worry about. As a foil for both her daughter and granddaughter, she is clearly the matriarch, replacing the mother, Louise, who moved to Hollywood from the Texas home of her daughter and mother. The ensuing struggle between these three females, to take and hold the alpha female position is the stuff of the play. McCallum takes her time to develop and age Nanny. She is believable and interesting. She has the twang of Texas about her and the characteristics of an overbearing and yet loving grandmother. She is protective, afflicted, hopeful, endearing and funny. McCallum helps us to understand the birth of many of Burnett’s characters and characteristics.
Cathy Gibbons Mostek gives us Louise, the character of the overcompensating, alcoholic, sometimes abusive mother to Helen. This is the kind of plumb role that any actress might hope to undertake during a career. Initially awkward and overly enthusiastic in dealings with her transplanted family, Louise spends many of the most memorable moments of the show careening emotionally out of control. Mostek’s Louise gradually gives over to the alcohol, and fills the stage with anger, terror, hopelessness, frustration, and surprisingly, love for her family. Louise’s single motherhood is not an unfamiliar plight. Mostek gives it her all, portraying the emotional emptying of Louise’s tank, allowing the story to unfold as a tragedy on many levels.
Act 2 features Older Helen and the further disintegration of her family unit. Corvino is believable as a frazzled working college student who hopes to make something of herself. Scenes with her younger sister Alice (Sabrina Betts) are poignant. Betts develops well from a young girl into a smart talking adolescent. Corvino really comes alive when her mother is at her worst, and her best. Mostek and Corvino are a formidable pairing.
Brian Gillin as Bill Burgess is sympathetic and appealing. Jessica Stinson fills the role of Dixie well and gives the audience a glimpse into a compassionate character who assisted when the disintegrating family needed it most. Brendan Mostek’s Malcolm is a charming addition to the cast. His talent has been passed along from his mother, who is also in the cast as Louise. Timothy P. Oskin plays Jody, who is the gracious, alcoholic, absentee father of Helen. His portrayal is touching and he is quite likable, despite his character’s lack of control over alcohol.
The ensemble is talented, the story is engaging. For those who enjoy drama and tragedy with a dose of humor, HOLLYWOOD ARMS is a welcome addition to the theater portfolio.
by Carol Burnett and Carrie Hamilton
Directed by Thomas-Robert Irvin
May 3-18, 2013
MN Players/Spotlight Theatre
129 Park Avenue
Swarthmore, PA 19081