You can take the joy with you

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By Doug Deuchler

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Oak Park Festival Theatre opened its 44th season with a hilarious, heartwarming new production of You Can't Take It With You. Director Jason Gerace keeps the pace breathless — perfect for a classic 1930s screwball comedy. The large ensemble gives immensely appealing performances. This show is an absolute pleasure.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is the third of eight collaborations between George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. This old-school comedy, once a staple for every theater group, is seldom mounted any more. With an 80-some-year-old show, of course, not everything is politically correct. There are gags about Trotsky and Mrs. Roosevelt, and chronic alcoholism was viewed as comic relief.   

The play takes place in the large living room of a New York home in 1937. It set the bar for lots of comedies where two polar-opposite families abruptly collide.

At the Sycamores' home, everyone does just what he or she pleases. Middle-aged Penelope (Barbara Zahora), formerly a bad painter, began writing a lot of bad plays when a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake eight years earlier. Her husband Paul (Scott Westerman) spends his days making fireworks in the cellar with Mr. DePinna (Chase McCurdy) who came to deliver ice and never left. Daughter Essie (Erica Bittnert), constantly dancing, dreams of becoming a ballerina despite her obvious lack of talent. Her live-wire hubby Ed (Gage Wallace) accompanies her on the xylophone. His other passion is the printing press. Ed prints out quotes from Trotsky and sticks them in the boxes of Essie's homemade candy they sell in the neighborhood.

Tax-dodging, snake-loving Grandpa Vanderhof (Jack Hickey), the patriarch who lovingly presides over this eccentric brood, is a shrewd philosopher who dropped out of the business world decades earlier. He is convinced no one should live for their work. Grandpa anchors the quirky ensemble with his convention-weary wisdom. His attitude is "life is pretty simple if you just relax."

The house is always filled with lots of wacky, busy folks, like a booming Russian emigre ballet instructor (Kent Joseph), a Russian grand duchess (Eleanor Katz) who is now a lunch counter waitress on 42nd Street, and an inebriated actress (also Katz) whom Penny met on a bus and brought home. Jerry Bloom plays a tax investigator and later a G-man.

Alice (Tyler Meredith), the only seemingly "normal" member of the family, is embarrassed by their weirdness, but she loves them all dearly and is protective of them. Alice, secretary to a Wall Street baron, has fallen in love with the boss' son — disasters ensue.

The cook (Lizzie Bourne) was originally an African-American character and her always-on-the-premises boyfriend (on relief) has been omitted. These two black characters supplied comic relief back in the day. I remember one of the family members calling them "our own Porgy and Bess." The cook is now white and speaks with a British accent.

The originally three-act play has been adapted to include one 15-minute intermission. But the biggest alteration is that Alice's boyfriend, Tony Kirby (Debo Balogun), is African American. The Kirbys are very straight-laced and high-toned. Predictably the families clash when Tony brings his uptight, snobbish parents over to meet the prospective in-laws. Charles Sedgwick Hall is very funny as Mr. Kirby, though in reality, I don't know how many Africa-American Wall Street tycoons there were during the Great Depression. Mrs. Kirby (Jeri Marshall) towers over her husband — an instant sight gag.

The charming, impressively detailed set is by Jessica Kuehnau Wardell. (I was walking the dog in Austin Gardens on Wednesday and it seemed barely begun, presumably because of all the recent rain.) The myriad props, from fake snakes to a model of the S.S. Queen Mary, are by Mary O'Dowd. The costumes are blurry in terms of the 1937 period.   

You Can't Take It with You may be a chestnut, but when smartly cast and well-staged, it's a joy. Opening night was delightful under the big trees in Austin Gardens. This show is really a good time.

See "You Can't Take It with You" at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., $32; $27, seniors; $15, students; free, children under 12 and dogs. Through July 22. Tickets/more: oakparkfestival.com, 708-300-9396.

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