Life with Father
Written by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Directed by Rip Claassen
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Think nostalgic, archetypical family structure with father firmly ensconced as lord of the manor, early American style, exquisite furnishings, resplendent couture, a phalanx of maids each duty-bound and hell-bent on pleasing the master, and a fawning wife catering to his every whim. Then add the truly uniquely American twist of almost imperceptible power shift, where the fawning wife is the actual power broker with Dad oblivious to the actual running of things, so that everybody gets the joke but him, and you’ve got the set-up for family comedies from the early drawing rooms and parlors to the stage, to 21st century jet-setting sitcoms. Life with Father was an all time favorite in American Theater and with its focus on hearth and home, is an ideal holiday selection for American Century Theater.
Even before his blustery entrance, Clarence Day, played winningly by Joe Cronin, is the center of attention; his moods are carefully observed, even his smallest likes and dislikes are carefully attended to. A newspaper report of a railcar accident is more tragic because it distempers his mood for the day just as his back handed slight to a maid can ruin hers. All financial matters of the household must be cleared by him, all listen attentively to his every utterance and jump preemptively to do his bidding– even the Rapture needs to confirm to his schedule. This is truly a hierarchical society where the servants can be talked about casually as if they are invisible even when standing attentively ready to serve. Nobody and nothing else matters but the comfort of his lordship, American style.
However, thanks to the crafty writing, it becomes clear with each passing scene that Papa with all his blustering is dangling on the strings of Mama, or Vinnie Day who carefully and unobtrusively controls his every move. She ends up getting what she wants – how she wants it, whether its clearing out extra rooms for extended visits from her family, shopping to her heart’s content, or getting Papa to church for a long overdue baptism. Each event sets the stakes a little higher with more tension and resistance between the characters, especially by the end when it could be anybody’s guess if Mama could pull it off. But all bets are off when it comes to Vinnie Day getting what she wants from any of the men folk in her household, which includes a gaggle of four sons. She is mother hen and they dutifully tend to her clucks with only mild resistance, especially Papa who bellows loudly while being corralled into her scheme of things, but doesn’t skip a beat to abide to her master plan. Mama doesn’t need to be in the title, that would have distracted from all the machinations she’s able to do behind the scenes where it counts. Superficial top billing would just get in the way.
Which underscores the importance of direction. The play has its own sweet crescendo effect which builds up to the final straw. But while Deborah Rinn Critzer has a solid command of her character’s strengths, demeanor and convictions, she plays Vinnie’s reactions at a consistent high pitch which after 2 and ½ hours can sound rather shrill. By the time we get to the crescendo, Critzer simply delivers more of the same which diminishes the significance of the final and ultimate altercation. The text indicates that her husband’s baptism means more to her than life itself, but that urgency doesn’t come across as effectively as it could. The potential is there as reflected in the fine job both she and Cronin do sparring at each other throughout the play in a fine battle of wits, so it’s just a matter of fine-tuning her expression. While the visual attributes of the production are commendable-that fully dressed dining table alone is a glowing treasure- the sound design could also use some attention. For example, the rather loud and prominent sounds of doors opening and closing come distinctly from stage right although the exit is stage left, and some sound cues don’t match the actual action-the results are unnecessarily distracting.
Admittedly, the material is dated-it opened in 1939 at the perilous end of the Great Depression–but in the hands of ACT, it doesn’t feel stodgy. Theatre buffs and novices alike will have fun recognizing that the play is deeply rooted in the style and tradition of English Comedies but with distinct buds of American sensibilities sprouting throughout. There’s something wondrous in seeing the precursor of family favorites ranging from Father Knows Best to the Cosby Show. As such, Life with Father is a pleasant stroll down memory lane, even as per the music at intermission – By the Light of the Silvery Moon. The show has a split run to accommodate the holidays and picks back up January 8th.
Running Time: 2:30, two intermissions
When: January 8- 24. Wednesday Thru Saturday 8, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:30.
Where: Theater II, Gungston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA
Tickets: $28 Call: 703-998-4555 or consult the website.