Stage Review

I Remember Mama (2014)

I REMEMBER MAMA Phyllis Somerville and Barbara Andres
Image credit: Carol Rosegg
I REMEMBER MAMA Phyllis Somerville and Barbara Andres
EW's GRADE
B+

Details Opening Date: Mar 30, 2014; Lead Performances: Barbara Andres, Barbara Barrie, Lynn Cohen and Phyllis Somerville; Writer: John Van Druten; Director: Jack Cummings III; Genres: Drama, Revival

The Glass Menagerie is often attributed as the ultimate ''memory play,'' and the recent, justly heralded revival starring Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto made no one forget it. Not to be outdone, Transport Group's evocative, moving take on John Van Druten's 1944 sentimental fave I Remember Mama (which also became an acclaimed 1948 movie with Irene Dunne) ups the ante. Ten veteran actresses — all over the age of 60 — assume all 25 roles in Van Druten's panoramic view of a cacaphonous Norwegian clan in the 1910s. In Jack Cummings III's staging some of the stars play both children and men (Lynn Cohen offers a ferocious if sometimes mush-mouthed take on the cantankerous, alcoholic boarder who reads the classics aloud to the family). But if you're worried that this approach dilutes the impact of the classic weepie, you'd be wrong. Watching these women in their twilight years play well below their age has a completely affirming effect.

As with many of Transport Group's revivals, Mama is staged with its locale in mind: Greenwich Village's Judson Gym, with four-sided seating as the cast spread out over nine tables in the center, each containing a specific set of props — one contains tea sets, one has recipes, one has books, etc. (Past Transport productions have taken place in loft apartments and ballrooms.) Sitting at one of the most prominent tables (with typewriters and paper) is Katrin (the luminous Barbara Barrie), our reliable narrator who recounts her days living with her sprawling family as she sets out to be a Jo March-type writer. The central figure in her journal is her hard-working Mama (Barbara Andres, lovely and understated), who tries to make a dollar stretch as far as her patience, and finds her tower-of-strength veneer tried in various ways. One trial is Mr. Hyde, the lodger who has contempt for all but Mama and her close kin. And there's lots of heart-sharing over cups of coffee, the latter served in real time from an actual coffee maker.

The cast has a remarkable sprightliness: The Big C's delightful Phyllis Somerville, circling 70, literally runs around tables and crawls under them as the youngest of the Hanson family. Cummings shuffles the women around with well-calibrated ease, though there are some limitations to the 360-degree staging: You sometimes miss the facial expressions in key moments, a real drawback in a melodrama and one that boasts some amazing, lived-in visages. Even when the characters' talk turns to subjects like the value of a pink dresser set and a brooch, the show's dramatic impact is undulled. By play's end, you may find yourself unexpectedly wiping away a tear. B+

(Tickets: www.transportgroup.org)
Originally posted Mar 31, 2014
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