Chicago Theatre Review
A Beautiful Holiday Gift
You Can’t Take It With You – Northlight Theatre
A much welcome old friend has returned to Northlight Theatre in the guise of a warm, wonderful production that celebrates love, family and living life to the fullest. One of the finest written, most beloved American plays of the 20th century was penned by the famous writing duo of George Kaufman and Moss Hart. It ranks up there with the writers’ “Once in a Lifetime,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” ultimately winning the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This comedy, which is also a favorite among regional, community and educational theatres, has been revived often on Broadway and was produced a number of times for television. The Frank Capra film version, which starred James Stewart, John Barrymore and Jean Arthur, won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.
Set during the Great Depression, Kaufman and Hart’s comic depiction of an eccentric family and their friends is a positive, loving story, something we could use more of nowadays. It shows a group of very diverse people living together harmoniously, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating one another’s talents and happiness. Three generations of the Sycamore family share the large house in Manhattan, headed by family patriarch, Grandpa Vanderhof. His daughter Penny who, as a free spirit, has followed in her father’s footsteps, paints portraits, writes plays and loves everything about her life. Penny’s husband Paul Sycamore happily tinkers with various mechanical gadgets, while also developing new and unusual kinds of fireworks in the basement of their home. He’s assisted by genial Mr. De Pinna, an iceman who came to the door one day and just decided to stay with this caring family.
One of the Sycamore’s daughters, Essie, is a childlike candy maker and a devoted and determined (although untalented) ballerina-in-training. Essie’s husband Ed Carmichael plays the xylophone, helps Essie with her candy deliveries and enjoys printing fliers, which he distributes all over New York City. The Sycamore’s other daughter, Alice, is their more conventional offspring. She successfully works a 9-to-5 job at a downtown office (where she’s fallen in love with Tony Kirby, the handsome, adoring young vice president of the company); and, while she dearly loves her crazy family, she’s sometimes a little embarrassed by them.
Add to this household Rheba, the housekeeper and cook, her amiable beau Donald, who performs odd jobs for the Sycamores, Essie’s Russian ballet instructor and frequent guest, Boris Kolenkhov, as well a retinue of other visitors. After their first date, Alice becomes engaged to Tony. She later invites Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, Tony’s affluent, conservative parents, to her house for dinner to meet her family. Because she’s concerned how the Kirbys will react to her madcap family, Alice is understandably thrown when they show up a day early. With their unannounced arrival, plus Penny’s guest, a very drunk actress named Gay Wellington, as well as an unexpected army of aggressive G-Men searching for criminal activity, Alice calls off the engagement, especially after everyone is hauled off to jail.
After directing Northlight’s fine production of “Lost in Yonkers,” Devon De Mayo returns to Skokie to guide this large production toward success. Staged within Courtney O’Neill’s massively magnificent two-story living/dining room setting, Mr. De Mayo has not only assembled a terrific cast, but he’s led them on a journey of discovery, finding just the right keynotes to create their three-dimensional characters. Then he’s paced his production like a marathon, honing what was originally a long, three-act play into an impressive, quick and bouncy two hours of family entertainment. The show is embellished with Izumi Inaba’s lovely, period-perfect costumes and Kevin O’Donnell’s original music and sound design.
John Judd heads the family as a Hal Holbrook-like Grandpa Martin Vanderhof. Filled with love, pride for his family and administering such gentle, homey wisdom and advice, Mr. Judd is this production’s treasure. Penny Slusher, so wonderful in Northlight’s “Chapatti,” brings warmth and humor to Penelope (Penny) Sycamore. As a woman who adores her children and extended family as much as herself, Ms. Slusher is the mother we all wish we could’ve had. Joanne Dubach and Andy Nagraj are superb as the Carmichaels. As Essie, Ms. Dubach executes her ballet moves with a mad fervor and dedication, all the while balancing trays of homemade candy that her devoted husband, Ed, will sample and deliver around town. Northlight newcomer Lucy Carapetyan is a beautiful Alice Sycamore. She’s filled with contagiously joyous energy and is as stunning in her Alice blue gown as in her dungarees. The audience easily identifies with this character’s first breath of love, as well as her frustration in trying to acclimate the Kirbys to the bizarre behavior of her family and friends.
The always delightful Sean Fortunato is swarthy and side-splitting as Boris Kolenkhov, and wonderful Hollis Resnik steals the show in two very funny roles. As inebriated actress Gay Wellington, this brilliant Chicago actress pushes the the limits of slapstick without going overboard; then, as the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, cousin to the Czar, Ms. Resnik becomes cultured Russian royalty, with a talent for making blintzes. Bernie Balbot is a caring, romantic leading man as Tony Kirby, Brad Armacost and Keith Neagle make a great comic team as Paul Sycamore and Mr. De Pinna, the fireworks fanatics, and Jenny Avery and Patrick Clear are perfectly uptight as the straight-laced Kirbys. Ericka Ratcliff and Samuel Roberson make a sweetly supportive couple as Rheba and Donald, and Tom Hickey, Colm O’Reilly and Kroydell Galima throw their weight around nicely as the G-Men.
An alternative to the usual holiday fare, Northlight Theatre’s wonderful production provides everything but the Christmas tree or Menorah. This play reminds audiences of what the holidays are meant to be all about: family, love and enjoying everything that life has to offer. Devon De Mayo’s whimsical, spirited production, brimming with warmth and humor, is the perfect nondenominational way to celebrate this special time of year, reminding us that everyday ought to be lived like it’s a gift from above.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 6-December 13 by Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.