by Elizabeth Breed
Iowa City - I am always excited to experience theatre that I’m unfamiliar with. I find that when I go to a play I’ve neither seen or read before that I am able to dive into my role as an audience member, making it much easier for me to become a part of the world of the play. I knew nothing of the plot of The Curious Savage much less the production history, but I knew that it was the second show of the “Here I Stand” season of Dreamwell Theatre. I had no preconceived notions or expectations and to be honest, I was completely clueless as to the fascinating night of theatre that was ahead of me.
The Curious Savage by John Patrick is the story of Ethel Savage, a wealthy, eccentric widow whose step-children have committed her to "The Cloisters," a home for those individuals who are, for lack of a better word, odd. Ethel has been sent to The Cloisters because of her views on what should be done with her family’s 50 million dollar estate and her desire to pursue a career on the stage, which her children decide is not keeping with the Savage family reputation. Little do they know, that Ethel has drained the family funds, put them into paper bonds, and has hidden them somewhere unknown to everyone but herself. Chaos ensues as Ethel’s children attempt to pry the bonds from her and she tries to come to terms with her commitment and the crazy cast of characters that are her co-inhabitants at The Cloisters.
The lights come up on the common room of The Cloisters, a mix of a game room, a library, a music room, and for one patient, an art studio. Technical director Rich Riggleman uses the small space to its best advantage, using the existing fireplace as a centerpiece for the scene. My only complaint about the stage comes from the actor in me. In many of the scenes, there are quite a few actors onstage, and I felt, even in the audience, a sense of claustrophobia, like there wasn’t quite enough playing space. That being said, director Gerry Roe does stage the action in such a way that the actors did a magnificent job with moving of the set pieces to fit their needs, and anticipating any difficult staging that may have had some obstacles in the way.
Linda Merritt, in her Dreamwell debut, portrays Ethel Savage with gusto and electricity that one would be hard-pressed to find even on a New York stage. From her first appearance with her blue hair, clutching an oversized teddy bear, Merritt commands the stage. Her performance seems entirely organic, which leaves the audience pondering where Ethel ends and Linda begins. Merritt conquers her role with raw fearlessness mixed with an innate lovableness that makes Ethel seem like she could be a member of anyone’s family.
Ethel’s three-stepchildren are eloquently played by John Crosheck, Traci Gardner, and Stephen Polchert. Crosheck’s Titus is calculating and brash, but he is very skilled at the simple nuances that this “bad guy” requires, whether it’s a booming outburst or a quiet threat aimed at his step-mother. Gardner’s icy Lily Belle is reminiscent of any modern day heiress who you love to hate, and her sophisticated yet manipulating charm makes an audience member feel as if they were watching the devil herself. In addition, Gardner’s dialogue with Merritt is acidic and very, very funny. Polchert’s bumbling and borderline innocent Samuel is the one character that makes this trio remotely empathetic. Polchert’s spot-on comedic timing with Samuel’s few lines is the mark of a seasoned professional.
Probably my favorite performance was brought to life by Elisabeth Ross, and it was obvious that the audience agreed with me. Ross’s portrayal of self-conscious Fairy Mae walked the fine line between outlandish and completely genuine. Fairy Mae seems blissfully ignorant of much of the world, and Ross’s choice to make the character seem childlike was very effective. However, she was able to engage a part of Fairy Mae that made it seem like she knew a big secret that the audience was not privy to. Knowing Elisabeth personally, I would say kudos to Roe for casting her in a role that seems to be tailor-made for her.
The rest of the patients of the cloisters are beautifully rounded out by Ben Singer as the calm Jeff , Monty as the playful Hannibal, Meg Dobbs as the almost completely silent artist Mrs. Paddy, and Theresa Meeks-Mosley as the tragically delusional Florence. Each actor is able to maintain their own unique performance while simultaneously adding dimension to the strong dynamic of the ensemble. Particularly apt is Singer’s portrayal of the young Jeff, a man who has come home from battle to find he has a “scar” on his face, and who has lost his passion for playing the piano. He finds himself in The Cloisters after returning home, and whose scar is in reality an emotional scar left after being the only survivor of his unit. Singer’s portrayal is simple yet evocative, a perfect fit.
Special consideration goes to Roxy Running and Mark Nidey, the nurse and doctor of The Cloisters, respectively. The two “sane” characters provide compassion and a sense of neutrality for the hijinks occurring around them. Running’s portrayal of Miss Willie was particularly capable as the understanding nurse who may have other reasons for staying at The Cloisters, and Nidey’s portrayal of the Dr. Emmett made him incredibly likable from the on-set. The audience could feel that the doctor was rooting for Ethel just as much as we were.
The most important message to take away from this show is that family doesn’t have to be the family you’re born with; it can also be the family you choose. Ethel discovers that the hurtful family she has been thrown into is perhaps not the family she is mean to endure. The Cloisters may be where her true family is, as seen by their unconditional love and acceptance of their new friend. That’s how this reviewer feels. That she was thrown into a crazy world without any expectations, and found that the heartwarming, and hilarious story was something she could relate to whole-heartedly. Bravo cast and crew of The Curious Savage, and bravo Dreamwell Theatre, on yet another beautiful piece of art!