As a fitting conclusion to its 30th anniversary season, the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum offers an ambitious sojourn through Thornton Wilder’s highly personal view of the history of mankind as distilled through the lives of relentless survivor Mr. Antrobus (Alan Blumenfield) and his family. Helmer Ellen Geer understands the thematic territory of this meandering legiter, and she has adapted it admirably to the vast, bucolic sprawl of Theatricum’s outdoor setting. Her efforts are ably supported by a large talented ensemble, anchored by Melora Marshall’s hilariously sumptuous portrayal of Antrobus’ indefatigable housemaid Sabina.
Shamelessly manipulating the audience, Geer’s staging includes a pre-show serenade by the company’s own version of the Sweet Adelines and uses faux audience members to supply firewood for the first-act re-enactment of the dawning of the Ice Age. Geer’s approach is quite appropriate for Wilder’s zany notion of the human experience.
Though the passage of time whizzes from the Ice Age to Noah’s flood (act two) to the aftermath of a modern war (act three), the Antrobus family is quite rooted in its homestead of Excelsior, N.J. Except during its frequent excursions into the “here and now,” when cast members obliterate the fourth wall, Wilder’s work methodically underscores his deeply rooted concepts of familial solidarity, good and evil, tragedy and salvation. To her credit, Geer never allows the seemingly out-of-control action to stray from the playwright’s intent.
From her first-act arrival in a skimpy French maid’s uniform, Marshall commands the stage. Putting her own stamp on a role originated by Tallulah Bankhead in the original 1942 staging of the work, Marshall segues wonderfully from self-serving, manipulative Sabina to the disgruntled diva of an actress who confides directly to the audience, “I hate this play.” Marshall’s mastery of Sabina carries through just as effectively in her second-act transformation into a husband-stealing barracuda of a beauty queen and her third-act redemption as a returning war vet who helps restore Antrobus family stability.
Katherine Griffith holds her own nicely as Mrs. Antrobus — wife, mother and inventor of the apron. Though this much put-upon earth mother can never match the mercurial flamboyance of Sabina, Griffith admirably communicates the dour patience of a woman who knows that despite her husband’s roving eye and fanny-pinching ways, he is totally committed to the stability of his family. Mrs. Antrobus’ second-act “save the family” speech is effective in its understated simplicity; she believes, quite correctly, that the veracity of her words alone will bring her husband to his senses.
Blumenfield believably communicates the ambivalent nature of Mr. Antrobus, a reflective man of science and letters (he invented the wheel and the alphabet) who nevertheless flies into fits of rage at the imperfections of his two children. Blumenfield makes it plausible that this man possesses the wisdom and knowledge of the ages, yet can be reduced to lascivious jelly by Sabina’s hips.
Of the Antrobus children, Gladys (Willow Geer) evolves quite nicely from a simpering child to a glowing young mother who is committed to following in her own mom’s path, while in a far showier role, Jeff Wiesen instills a seething energy into son Henry, a malevolent malcontent constantly battling his father for acceptance.
The widespread Theatricum Botanicum stage fills all the requirements of the play with just a few uncredited set pieces. Immensely helpful are the evocative lights of Jose Morrissey and sounds of Susan Mundell. The period-perfect costumes of Marianne Parker impressively follow the time transitions of the work.