By: David Sheward
Entering the Gym at Judson for Transport Group’s revival of I Remember Mama, John Van Druten’s nostalgic 1944 play about a Norwegian immigrant family in turn-of-the-cen
tury San Francisco, feels like walking into a church rummage sale. Set designer Dane Laffrey has arranged 10 antique tables, each covered with separate collections of items from a bygone era-such as paperback classics, typewriters, handkerchiefs, silverware, and black-and-white photographs. Then Barbara Barrie, a veteran actor in her 80s, enters, sits down at the table full of typewriters, and, as the narrator Katrin, summons up the figures from the play, enacted by nine other women, each with decades of experience on the stage.
Previous Transport Group productions have made equally ingenious uses of space. The Boys in the Band placed the audience in an actual apartment for a raucous birthday party. Hello Again was set in a mysterious nightclub. See Rock City had everyone in folding beach chairs in a vast open environment for its examination of tourist spots. Here, director Jack Cummings III’s concept is just as imaginative and stunning in its simplicity. The setting is like an attic full of memory-evoking curios where the actors seemingly conjure up the fragments of the Andersons’s past.
The episodic nature of Van Druten’s script, based on Kathryn Forbes’s fictionalized memoir and later made into a hit movie and TV series and a short-lived musical, lends itself to this scrapbook-style approach. Starting with the family’s Saturday night ritual of counting out Papa’s meager wages, we go from incident to incident, led by Barrie, a writer composing a story not unlike Forbes’s. Barrie delivers her monologues as if she were searching her character’s mind to find the threads of the past and weave them into her novel.
The all-female cast effortlessly shrugs off its years and becomes teenagers, children, boys, men, and meddling aunts. Barrie miraculously shifts between the mature writer and the self-dramatizing adolescent version of Katrin. Barbara Andres exudes maternal warmth and wisdom as the resourceful and loving Mama of the title. Despite her diminutive stature, Lynn Cohen convincingly transforms herself into the domineering Uncle Chris of whom the entire family is frightened. She also makes for an elegantly shabby Mr. Hyde, a grandiose but lovable con-man boarder.
I also loved Phyllis Somerville’s cuddly little sister, Rita Gardner’s jittery Aunt Trina, Heather MacRae’s placid Mr. Thorkelson, and Dale Soules’s steady Papa. Along with Susan Lehman, Louise Sorel, and Alice Canon, they create a memorable memory play.
March 30-April 20. Transport Group Theatre Company at the Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $55-65. (866) 811-4111.www.ovationtix.com
Photo: Carol Rosegg