Fort Worth — OK, Tarrant Actors Regional Theater (TART), meet me in the lobby. We need to talk.
There have to be better “lost gems” sitting on the shelf than John Patrick’s 1950 The Curious Savage. It’s a sweet, fey story about the nice-but-cracked inmates of a genteel mental institution, and was once very popular with community theaters, colleges and high schools. This production at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Sanders Theatre feels very mid-century—as if we’ve been time-warped back to a Little Theatre in 1950s Texas—but not in a cool way: the play’s calculated and oh-so-safe humor only serves to remind us how much edgier and ironical we’ve become since.
In other words, it’s a tough sell.
TART founder Allen Walker directs a cast of 11, including some well-known local talents, who clearly are doing their best with the script and have fine moments here and there—but there’s too much forced charm and twittering, and only occasional flashes of genuine emotion onstage. Charm is well and good—after all, this play was a vehicle for the aging legend Lillian Gish, who could charm the birds out of the trees—but even the enormously engaging Gish couldn’t keep The Curious Savage running on Broadway for long. Patrick’s script feels overlong and limp, and has an unhappy tendency to spout quote-me-please aphorisms about not giving up on life, or how the insane might just be the sanest of us all.
The story borrows elements from both Harvey and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, with its tale of a wealthy older woman, Mrs. Savage (Hazel Murphy) whose Deeds-like scheme of giving away her millions enrages her selfish step-children (Walter Betts, Laura Jones and Pat Dohoney). She’s sold off the family’s holdings, and turned them into a packet of bonds she’s hiding—but where? To buy themselves time, the adult “kids” have Mom committed to a country place called The Cloisters, where the Harvey-cute inmates paint, garden, and play music (and refuse to read the newspapers until the news is at least a month old) under the kind and watchful eyes of Miss Wilhelmina (Libby Hawkins Roming) and Dr. Emmett (Delmar H. Dolbier).
Both Dolbier and Roming score as the wisest people in the room—their relationship has an in-the-trenches camaraderie—and exude a feeling of genuine concern for the people in their care. As Mrs. Savage, the Teddy bear-ing Murphy uses too-fussy speech and gestures to convey her character’s eccentricity. She is at her best in warm one-on-one moments, as she talks with her new friends at The Cloisters; she quickly becomes a motherly counselor, a “person of interest” in their little world. As her grown children, the Betts/Jones/Dohoney trio are noisy cartoon characters—a judge, senator, and much-married society gal—but that’s what the script gives them to work with.
Taken as a group, the residents of The Cloisters have just the right amount of crazy to keep us comfortable and unchallenged. Eric Dobbins (the fine lead in TART’s debut Woman in Black last year) plays a World War II vet who can’t get back into life; Karen Matheny is a young mother whose “child” is a rag doll; and Brad Stephens (amazing in Circle Theatre’s God of Carnage) plays a number-obsessed statistician who now prefers the violin. Ashley Bownds is a childlike woman who loves to be told she’s loved; and Kimberly Mickle plays a housewife who “hates everything in the world”—but who, we suspect, will have a streak of sweetness in the end. And I’ll say it again: these talented actors give it their best, and connect with us in specific moments, but they are better than the script, which has jokes about Eleanor Roosevelt, Pearl Harbor, and (God bless those pre-PC days) albinos—because while Patrick’s 1953 play The Teahouse of the August Moon is now unplayable because of its racially condescending story, it’s apparently still OK to make fun of the preternaturally pale.
Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes are well done, particularly his over-the-top ‘50s creations for Mrs. Savage’s society daughter. Sets are by Bryan S. Douglas and sound by Walker, and they’ve come up with some creatively corny ideas—including a Movie-of-the-Week-style introductory video, and a sweeping score lifted from that three-hanky classic, Somewhere in Time.
TART, under the leadership of artistic director Walker, opened its first season last fall with a professional and surprisingly engaging version of The Woman in Black, an adaptation of a Gothic novella set in horse-and-buggy England. Next season will include Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible; Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap; and 1972’s The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, a play by Paul Zindel (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds). Walker dedicates this production of The Curious Savage to Dr. Lewis Fulks, who directed him in the play during Walker’s student years at Abilene Christian University. Emotional ties aside, though, The Curious Savage is a curious choice as a follow-up to TART’s successful premiere production.