The Curious Savage, a play written by John Patrick in 1950, as presented by Westerly’s Granite Theatre, has some bumps in the road but once it gets going its a very interesting path, indeed. Like a home-made pizza presented with a few edges burnt and some air pockets in the crust, this is not a perfect play nor delivery of it, yet somehow prevails as a fun, “tasty” and provocative theatrical serving without question.
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The story centers around an actress of some fame and recent widow Ethel P. Savage, played by one of Granite Theatre’s leading creative contributors Beth Jepson. Ethel has in recent months inherited about ten million dollar from her late husband. When Ethel had married him years earlier (and before the play’s content begins), she also took on his previous young children as her own; they have grown up, seemingly to despise her. Although from my memory, as an audience we are not really told if any of the now-grown children have legitimate reasons for their dislike of their step-mother other than the typical “step-child as brat” type modality.
As we begin, the three adult children, apparently now aged between in their 30s and 40s are introduced to us as Titus (a U.S. senator), Lily Belle (the most self-centered of the three), and Samuel (a judge). They are shocked to find out that their stepmother had set up a memorial fund with her money in order to help average people pursue their dreams. On the basis of her “eccentric” behavior (such as her pursuit of acting and the goals of her fund) the adult kids conspire to have her committed to a well-meaning but oppressive long term sanatorium/assisted living home called The Cloisters so that they can, in theory, lay claim to the money they feel is rightfully hers.
Oddly, Ethel takes this development in more or less a good stride, expecting that eventually, the staff will let her go, based on her wisdom and normal sensibilities. The only thing that contrasts this is Ethel’s affection towards her beloved teddy bear (as depicted on the show’s poster) and her dependence on him for comfort. For the most part, Ethel does not seem threatened or scared of being in The Cloisters, for the short term at least, rather more so, enjoying the “ride” of it all.
This helps the play move along more like a comedy, rather than say the film or stage version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. I don’t know if anyone else in the audience has had an experience seeing a loved one “cared for” in any of the high profile retirement homes throughout southern Rhode Island, but for those that have, moments of this play may strike a disturbingly familiar chord. In any event, being the “curious” type, Ethel finds herself quickly acquainted with her Doctor (who ultimately has the final say in Ethel’s freedom), head nurse (stern but sympathetic) and, most lively, her new neighbors; the other residents of The Cloisters.
The other residents are a likable but flawed bunch, reminiscent of the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, in that all of the residents are meant to have some “fatal flaw” in either their character or circumstance that represents both their humanity and frailty. There’s Fairy May (a character meant to be a plain girl who has difficulty telling fantasy from truth) who sees herself being more physically attractive than she is.
Although likely perfectly fine in 1950 when the play was written, it could be argued this character “flaw” in particular hasn’t aged well; these days, folks are likely to question “Who defines beauty and why should that matter?” None the less, Michelle Mania’s take on Fairy May is fun and perky, but for some audience members, it may prove an uphill challenge to interpret this talented and charming actress as exactly a “plain Jane” character.
Jeff (a concert pianist and military veteran) believes that he was horribly scarred in the war, even though he survived the plane crash that killed all his men without a scratch. Jeff continually covers the side of his face with his hand as if to cover a scar; it’s not much of a “spoiler” to reveal that the scar is more internal than external. Florence, a nice and well-meaning lady, dotes on a Raggedy Andy doll as if it were her 5-year-old living son, although sadly the son is long since dead. The doll device would probably be more effective, but being in the same play as Ethel and her trusted Teddy Bear, it seems like one two many stuff toys for one show; or a creative device redundancy.
The oddly named Hannibal, a statistician who lost his reason after being replaced by an electronic calculator and not finding work again, believes himself to be a concert violinist, even though he is not a trained player, much to the chagrin of all that must listen to his “performances.” Hannibal’s story, in particular, was a bit tough for me to follow, although I think the general idea is that of the “natural born artist who has been squandered into the ordinary 9 to 5 only to find himself ousted from even that when technology replaces him for a machine”.
Mrs. Paddy, who had been told by her husband to “shut up” years before, rarely speaks except to shout out protracted lists of things she hates (including electricity, which she has given up for Lent) She believes herself to be a great artist, though her painting style is simplistic. Mrs. Paddy and her erratic rants, delivered in a PG-rated George Carlin-esque type staccato turned out to be a crowd favorite the night that I attended the show.
What follows over the next few hours is a power struggle between Mrs. Savage’s neighbors against her step-children for her loyalty, love, approval and, to some extent, the whereabouts of her money. The doctor and nurse are in the position of “judge and jury” and sadly, these circumstances are being played out every day, even now, as our society struggles with how to treat the elderly, and the rights of individual citizens versus “what’s best for them and society”.
It’s a loaded play, full of deep content, subtext and meaning beyond the words, that may lend itself to a second viewing. In full disclosure, there were some audio issues the night I attended as it seemed Granite was trying a new microphone system which didn’t seem fully effective initially but the problems seemed to resolve themselves fully by halfway through the first act.
This is a play that should be seen as it manages to broach some very difficult and under-discussed topics with care and most importantly, good-natured humor, a difficult task to accomplish, indeed.
The Curious Savage is showing at the Granite through June 16. Tickets can be purchased here.