Jack Seybold as Papa and Presila Quinby as Mama in Camelot Theatre Company's production of 'I Remember Mama.' - Photo by Steve Sutfin

'I Remember Mama' sparkles with top-notch acting, direction

Director Paul Jones and company clearly had fun mounting the long (three hours), large (20-some characters) production of "I Remember Mama" that opened Friday night at Camelot Theatre in Talent.

The old chestnut was adapted for the stage in 1944 by John Van Druten from Kathryn Forbes' 1910 book "Mama's Bank Account."

The fact that it's as dated as a corset didn't stop the actors from playing with verve or the audience from responding with warm, frequent laughter. And the production succeeds in leaving you with a clear impression — an effect too often missing from the stage these days.

"I Remember Mama" lacks a through-action, a conflict, a villain and a traditional plot. It is episodic, told as a series of vignettes or anecdotes remembered by Katrin (Sarah Gore), a bright, young girl in a family of Norwegian immigrants living in San Francisco a century ago.

Katrin has a powerful imagination and a proclivity for losing herself in the likes of Dickens and Stevenson and Fenimore Cooper. With her two sisters and brother, she lives in a family dominated by good, wise, frugal, ever-patient Mama (Presila Quinby). Papa (Jack Seybold) is basically wallpaper, emerging from the background now and again to agree with Mama.

That this goes down on the stage as well as it does is a testament to Jones' sure-handed direction — there's not a false step here — and to the performances of Quinby as Mama and Bruce Lorange as the family's irascible, flask-toting Uncle Chris. The characters are sharply drawn. They don't go for the sentimental, which would have been intolerable in what's already a nostalgia piece.

Mama teaches the children about money, comes up with a clever ploy to visit daughter Dagmar in the hospital when no visits are allowed, confronts pettiness and gossip and the various slings and arrows of a cold world with warm equanimity. She is a mix of Mrs. Olsen from the old Folger's coffee commercials and Mary Poppins.

The story seems to be about Mama but is ultimately about Katrin's struggle to find her voice as a writer. We see Katrin observing Mama's virtues and wisdom as she grows gradually into a young woman, an event underscored in one scene by Papa's offering her a symbolic cup of coffee (womanhood), which Mama leavens with a symbolic dollop of cream (not too much too soon).

There is no sign in any of this of the inner life. There are no mother-daughter issues. Is it possible that Katrin remembers only the good stuff?

It is an interesting role for Quinby, who puts a little steel in Mama's spine and keeps her from drifting into sheer saintliness. Quinby can say more in a flash of her eyes than some actors say in whole soliloquies. She finds some entertaining, mildly rancorous dramatic chemistry with her stiff, judgmental sisters, Aunt Jenny (Dianna Warner), and Aunt Sigrid (Susan DuMond). Without the sisters, the tippler Uncle Chris and a dubious boarder named Mr. Hyde, the whole thing could float right off into hagiography.

The cast has labored effectively in the cause of a pleasant, nostalgic entertainment. It is effectively staged with vivid, if not deep, characters. It says there is simple goodness in the world, and that talent is rewarded.

Was there ever such a family? Everything we've learned in the past century says probably not. But that's not really the point.

Consider real families. Scary stuff there. Think of families such as O'Neill's Tyrones. Think of Chekhov's Prozorovs, which were created at about the same time as the Hansons, or Williams' Wingfields, which had their stage debut the same year as the Hansons.

We wouldn't want to live in such families, but they affect us in deep ways. The trouble with Van Druten's family is that they show us things we already know. The Hansons make us comfortable.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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