I have been a parent now for about half as long as I’ve been a theatre critic. I suspect that the one job has started to bleed over into the other over the years. As a parent, one finds oneself constantly looking at the world for potential hazards. Constantly looking around for things that might go wrong has a tendency to color one’s critical thought processes. A large ensemble comedy like Sunset Playhouse’s production of The Curious Savage is fraught with potential dangers. It’s kind of a miracle that a contemporary production of the 1950 comedy manages to accomplish all it does in light of all the potential hazards.
This show takes place entirely in a mental institution in 1950. Back then it was a lot easier for people to laugh at mental illness because people were assholes. Okay...0kay...that’s an over-generalization of a very complicated situation in the mid-twentieth century, but the point is that setting the comedy in a world of mental illness wasn’t nearly as much of a touchy subject as it is now. Director Dustin J. Martin’s job of bing compassionate about mental illness while staging a comedy set in a sanitarium is aided by a very respectable script by John Patrick. Every one of the characters feels like an authentic person with very real emotional damage in the past. That being said, the characters could easily have played as flat crazy stereotypes were it not for thoughtful character work by everyone involved in the ensemble. Thanks to Martin, the ensemble and the script, the hazard of insensitivity is avoided because as sensitive contemporary theatre people, cast, crew and audience are all diligently trying NOT to be assholes.
The Comedy/Drama Mix
There’s laughter. There’s tragedy. Madness occasionally veers off in the direction of a punchline. It’s delicate stuff. Comedy thrives on the unexpected. It’s difficult to be caught by surprise if one is constantly conscious of whether a given moment is serious or seriously funny. Paula Garcia plays Ethel--a woman being committed to the institution by her family. We don’t know if she’s crazy or not so we don’t know if it’s okay to laugh at her. Is it tragic that she’s clinging to a teddy bear throughout the entire show or is it funny? And what are we to make of the fact that the teddy bear in question is actually kind of cute in spite of the fact that it’s missing an eye? (So many variables.) Dustin J. Martin, Paula Garcia and company avoid the ambiguity between comedy and drama by simply respecting the characters enough to be true to them. Any human. being is capable of being tragic and funny at the same time. The characters should be no different. Try to be genuine to the characters and let the audience decide when they should laugh...in the process of bringing the reality of the show to the stage, the balance between comedy and serious drama allows to assert itself organically. Martin and company understand this and respect it.
Sunset Playhouse’s production of The Curious Savage runs through March 17th at the Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall St. in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com. My comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.