You Can’t Take it With You is one of those rare shows at the very heart of community theater. Sure, there are pros who could have done it just as well — or, arguably, better — but the show’s massive cast impressively succeeds at creating a family atmosphere that could be derived only from really wanting to be there. And isn’t really wanting to be there what community theater’s all about?
The acceptance of family and an exploration of what it means to be happy are at the heart of You Can’t Take it With You, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that was later transformed into the classic 1938 film directed by Frank Capra. Both hilariously and poignantly detail the plight of Alice Sycamore, a young woman reared in a happily eccentric family who finds herself engaged to Tony Kirby, a nice boy from the less eccentric — that is to say, far more conservative — side of the tracks.
In the Ojai Art Center Theater’s version of the tale, it’s hard not to feel for Alice, a sweet girl madly in love with her new fiance and deathly afraid that her family’s going to blow it for her. Alice, so artfully portrayed by Nordhoff High School junior Jackie Van Etten, at first turns down Tony’s proposal, but he manages to convince her that they can build a life together, despite her fear that her weird family will alienate his upper-class, conservative parents.
As Alice and her family prepare for a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, Alice grows increasingly frustrated with the flaws she sees. Everyone can relate to the inner turmoil caused by trying to peruse your home through the eyes of outsiders and finding it horribly lacking. In Alice’s case, however, it isn’t just what’s lacking: It’s what’s all too obvious.
First off, there’s the pet snake. Then there’s Alice’s mom, Penny, who decided to try her hand at writing plays when a typewriter was delivered to her house by accident; her sister, Essie, the would-be ballet dancer who constantly flounces about the house; her father, Paul, who spends most of his time making fireworks in the basement with his friend, Mr. De Pinna, who just kind of showed up one day and never left. And those are just a handful of the 18-member cast that turns the stage into a rollicking circus.
Valorie Paradise-Lant stands out as the lovable Penny, a mother clearly supportive of her children and their endeavors, as does Mark Robbins as Paul, the sweet but clueless father, and Megan McCormick as Essie, the happy-go-lucky, annoying but kind sister. Joel Hunt, as Tony, is endearingly sweet as a man who just wants everyone to get along. Fortunately, there is not a weak link in the show. Unfortunately, there are simply far too many players to explore in detail in a single review.
At the center of the action is Ron Rowe as Martin Vanderhof, Alice’s grandfather and a man who gave up a financially sound version of the good life in favor of living a joyous existence with his family. It is he who reminds us that, after all, “You can’t take it with you.” Rowe is perfectly cast as the good-natured Vanderhof.
If there’s one tiny flaw in the show, it’s that Mr. and Mrs. Kirby are so very likable, so much so that you can’t help but wonder if Alice is making too much of the differences between her family and Tony’s. It’s hard to believe that the kind pair — even after enduring a little legal trouble, thanks to Mr. Vanderhof — wouldn’t eventually come around. OK, so Mr. Kirby was wrestled to the ground by Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s ballet instructor (brilliantly played by Howard Leader), but still as the Kirbys, Terri Sheridan and Nolan Ballin provide for some great moments, especially while playing Penny’s word-association game. Sheridan excels at fleshing out a character that hasn’t much stage time by communicating some of the true frustrations of her life.
Because it’s set in the ’30s, the play, beautifully directed by filmmaker Steve Grumette, is also a bit of a fashion show. Most of the vintage pieces belong to Mary Ann Steuhrmann, a professional photographer who was costume designer and photographer for the show. Steuhrmann, who specializes in 1930s-style photography, said providing costumes was as easy as raiding her own closet. “I had dressed in ’30s and ’40s clothes since eighth grade,” she said. “All the clothes on stage are actually clothes I wear.”
Still, no matter how you dress it up, You Can’t Take it With You is about the unconditional acceptance of who we love — no matter how freakish they may appear to everyone else. n