For the current Appleseed Productions
effort at Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., director Jon
Wilson has labored assiduously to ensure that every member of his cast
speaks in the cut-glass tones that would pass muster in St. James
Square. But despite a parade of the usual suspects, including a
snobbish dowager, an excitable twit and a wiseacre servant, what we
have here is a solid American product: a sitcom.
Not that there’s anything wrong with
that, as a noted American aesthetician put it. Over the past few years
we have seen several community theater shows written as genuine British
farces, both light and dark (no titles, please). Laughs were scant.
Stiff upper Brits: David Hubert, Rachelle Clavin, Nora O’Dea and Gerrit Vander Werff Jr. in Appleseed’s I Shot My Rich Aunt.
Rich Aunt slams no doors and
generally runs a pretty leisurely pace. Indeed, the first half-hour is
top-heavy with exposition, requiring us to pay close attention to the
parsing of complex relationships. Along with the comedy, much of it
relying on multiple mistaken identity, come elements of double love
triangles and murder mystery. Then adding too much salt to the soup,
playwright Chandler introduces a fistful of social awareness: Picketing
labor unions have raised the drawbridge, and everyone is stuck in
gray-walled Wendrew Manor for the duration.
We meet the insufferable rich aunt in
the first scene and quickly realize she is worthy of receiving a
bullet. Valonia Wendrew (Nora O’Dea) is preparing for the wedding of
her well-spoken nephew Dustin (David Hubert) to chirpy but perfectly
respectable Judy Blake (Anne Freund). Arriving early, but not candid
about her true identity, is slim, dark and fetching Vivian Rexford
(Rachelle Clavin), the prospective groom’s ex-lover, who is not sure
how she lost his affections. While Dustin’s charms may indeed be worth
Vivian’s counter-strategies, it is also true that moneybags auntie is
rewriting her will. Her smiling solicitor, Henry Mayhew (Richard
Harris), is on hand for the necessaries.
A triangular subplot with guy-guy-girl
symmetrically complements the one already introduced of girl-girl-guy.
It starts with Dustin’s comic sidekick Bingo Blake (Gerrit Vander Werff
Jr.), who is also bride Judy’s brother. He brings along a sexually
frisky, unattached old school chum Gwendolyn (Wendy Sikorski). And
there’s the unpromising drip of a second nephew, Nigel Wendrew (David
Vickers). A clergyman in a white dog collar, Nigel is given to
pretentious diction and hair-splitting distinction. To Dustin and Judy
he opines, “I won’t marry you. You’ll marry yourselves. I’ll just be
the witness.” Which leads to Rich Aunt’s best reversal. It’s Rev. Milquetoast who begins to upset the order of things by putting the make on Judy the bride.
Motivations for other plot collisions
are more random. Seeing that there are some game birds on the manor’s
grounds, Bingo suggests that Dustin and he go out and plug a few. Well,
why not? In comedy as in drama, any weapon introduced into the story
must be fired. Thus when Dustin and Bingo return, smoke circling from
the barrels of their guns, they find the red-spattered body of Aunt
Valonia sprawled over an ottoman with a conspicuous hole in the front
of her blouse. After the boys run for help they return to find
Valonia’s body gone.
The second brouhaha spins around which
of the gentlemen might be found in some kind of compromise with the
ever-spicy Gwendolyn. Solicitor Mayhew’s wife is so hyperventilated to
know that her husband is in the same house with her that she threatens
to arrive at the manor with horsewhip in hand. In a comedy where
characters droop over losing consciousness at the stroke of a
playwright’s pen, all Gwendolyn needs to do is snooze conspicuously and
she might compromise some guy.
Director Wilson has begun with seasoned
veterans like Nora O’Dea and Richard Harris, and he gets what he needs
from younger company regulars like Wendy Sikorski, good in an
underwritten part, and Gerrit Vander Werff Jr. He takes chances on
newcomers in many roles and gets his best results from David Vickers as
the Rev. Nigel and Korrie Strodel and the smart-mouthed cook Eloise.
Vickers polishes some of the best lines: “Under my starched collar my
heart beats with thermonuclear intensity—I’ve got the hots for you!” The fun playwright Chandler allots to Eloise unravels Rich Aunt’s chief secrets. Rachelle Clavin as the ex-girlfriend doesn’t get to say much that’s funny but delivers the necessary allure.
Jon Wilson’s set design features thick
stone walls that look like a Norman castle but allows for two windows
off the main hall so that exiting characters can conclude with two
short epilogues. It gives them the last word, twice.
This production runs through Saturday, May 16. See Times Table for information.