In Soulpepper’s current production of You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, you won’t find anyone hooked up to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email or other media of incessant and obsessive connection. After all, these of late have been considered ironically, in publications like The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, as facilitators of widespread social isolation and loneliness and not a deep human connection that the play celebrates.
You will find instead a subtly rewarding production, under Joseph Ziegler’s sensitively judged direction, that treats individual eccentricity as a positive and necessary human characteristic -and not a theatrical cliché to be used for easy laughs. It’s a production that also treats love as a praiseworthy passion coexistent with vulnerable dignity in people -and not a theatrical cliché that inspires easy and shallow sentiment. It’s also a production that draws appreciative laughter from the heart as it proves how genuine love needs more that a “send” button to be received.
Without straining to broadcast the essential human values inherent in the play, Ziegler and his finely tuned company accomplish a celebration of some of life’s essential values as they unfold in an everyday context. As a result, we come to care about these characters because we discover, through their unobtrusive focus on the basics of human existence, what we all care about, in others and in ourselves. It’s “lighthearted comedy” that takes the heart seriously.
The Sycamore household is certainly a busy place in which individuals do their own thing, always accepted and somehow in harmony with the others. Mom writes plays because one day a typewriter was delivered by mistake and now, in frustration with creative process involving her “war play” and her “sex play” and her “religious play,” she wonders aloud, regarding the latter, “You’d think that with forty monks and a girl something would happen.” Dad, who reads Trotsky in the bathroom, and permanent visitor Mr. De Pinna concoct fireworks in the basement, along with house-filling smoke and occasional explosions.
Of the younger folk, daughter Essie practices ballet, with self-indulgent dramatics, throughout the living room while hubby Ed, “who came for me one day and just stayed” plays a xylophone. Meanwhile, the broadly Russian Mister Kolenkhov supervises her lesson and, in summary, declares candidly, “she stinks.” An energetic black maid Reba, spiced with a touch of earthy femininity, coasts about in overdrive like the rest and keeps the household functioning, while her not so energetic boyfriend, on relief, complains that he must wait a whole half hour in line.
The play has two theme-defining centres and the performance of each one strikes a special note. Krystin Pellerin, as other daughter Alice, glows with purity of heart and urgent vulnerability and her declaration that she couldn’t “break away” from her family because they have a “nobility” to them rings true. Pellerin’s pivotal Alice is a distinct presence -think early Shirley Jones- and she is girlishly feminine with charm rooted in human decency and firm values. Inevitably she must be tested –think Joseph Campbell- and with her marital dream on the verge of collapse, blurts out, “Why can’t we be like other people….a place where you can bring your friends to?”
Eric Peterson as sagacious Grandpa begins the saying of grace with “Well, Sir…….” and doesn’t pay taxes because he “doesn’t believe in it”. He long ago dropped out of the business world, “just stopped” actually, and now seems open to any delight that life can offer. He can therefore question Alice’s potential father in law about his life in business with “Where’s the fun come in?” since the latter’s career is sustained with “bicarbonate of soda.” Of course, Grandpa, with his preference for enjoyment, is accused of communism and being un-American, but, since he seems so easy and wise, the ways of Wall Street seem even more lifeless, pointless, and inhuman as a result. The play was written in 1936….or was it yesterday?
The Soulpepper cast here achieve a balance of rightness and surprise in each characterization –too many instances to mention- and create an overall atmosphere in which the coexistence of idiosyncrasies and an unforced familial bond seem natural. There is much to enjoy here: the common folks decide to offer the Wall Street aristocrats a dinner of canned salmon, beer, frankfurters and Campbell soup; a house-calling internal revenue officer is utterly confused by questions regarding the raison d’être of taxes; the Grand Duchess, related to the Czar and now a waitress in a Times Square restaurant, still maintains values of a dead class system; a totally drunk actress who seems a dead weight with every move sleeps on the couch; the Wall Street exec’s wife carries both her snobbery and her unhappiness in the most vertical and unbending spine you’ll ever see. And always, one is touched by the undercurrent of loving acceptance, of life being fun if only we’d get out of the way and let it be so.
Yes, this is populist optimism circa 1936: idealization of family life that faces only resolvable problems and somehow always finds food on the table; a celebration of social equality (black, Italian, Russian, rich, poor, young, old) in a country with racism and economic inequality at its core; an experience of human warmth that for two hours puts aside a world in which humans are killing and will kill one another by the millions. Yes, of course, Frank Capra made a film of You Can’t Take It With You and, yes, in the wrong hands a play like this might seem anachronistic and quaint, even cloyingly innocent. But in a perpetually cruel world, our hopes for love and decency and kindness always seem innocent and naïve, just as these same hopes nonetheless remain crucial to our wanting to be alive. In an excellent production, the Soulpepper company makes this point very contemporary and very clear.