'Savage'-ly funny

By Tom Helma

Vaudevillian humor elevates genteel comedy

A curiosity, indeed, is Ethel Savage, a wealthy widow who wants to donate her late husband’s millions to charity rather than to her three cranky, selfish, ne’er-do-well adult stepchildren. “The Curious Savage” is a perfect fit for the elder madams of the Red Hat Society and the rest of the senior ilk that is Starlight Theatre’s target audience.

First performed in 1950, John Patrick’s play takes place at The Cloisters, a bucolic sanitarium in the country. It is a home where traumatized, emotionally ill adults from families of means are sent to recover in the midst of the healing powers of nature. Ethel is anything but insane, placed there as punishment for hiding the family fortune.

This play draws upon the history of exaggerative vaudevillian humor to establish itself early on as a comic farce.Director Harlow Claggett has assembled a cast whose distinctive acting styles add up an entourage of endearing nutcase bozos. This is a seasoned ensemble cast, with veteran Eve Davidson bringing gravitas as Ethel in the calm center of the vortex.

The rest of the patients, however, are a baffled and bewildered mix of merry maniacs, a babbling band of batty bumpkins, led by Fairy May (Laura Croff Wheaton), an ingénue with conversational non sequitur gambits. Wheaton flits and frets her way across stage, evoking many laughs. She is joined in comic intensity by a disheveled Jan Ross as the perpetually hostile Mrs. Paddy, who compiles and recites ever-expanding lists of all that she hates. Both of these actors are at the top of their games and steal the stage at times.

The three other residents, in considerably more minor roles, provide these delightful divas with straight lines galore. Laura Potter plays Florence, who carries around a doll version of a lost 5-year-old and is poignantly touching. Dave Sincox, meanwhile, portrays Hannibal, a nerdy, delusional statistician, and Greg Pratt plays Jeffrey, whose imaginary facial scars leave him unable to return to his previous brilliance as a concert pianist.

Ethel’s stepchildren also contribute much buffoonery. Colleen Patton leads the pack in this trio, displaying a snooty seriousness that makes her character, Lilly Belle, all the funnier. Adam Bright is the not-very-bright U.S. senator named Titus, and his brother Samuel is a Freudian-looking, stuffy old judge. Rounding out the cast are Dan Pappas as the doctor-in-residence and Sarah Hauck as his most important nurse assistant, both of whom are bit loony-tunes themselves.

This play is not a darkly deep existential drama that you will be discussing all the way home, and yet the idea of someone wealthy giving away money to charity for sheer delight is curiously attractive.

“The Curious Savage”
Starlight Dinner Theatre
Through March 16
Waverly East Intermediate School
3131 W. Michigan Ave.
Fridays and Saturdays: dinner 6:30 p.m., show 7:30 p.m.
Dinner & show: $33 general/$28 seniors, students/$20 children
Show only: $15 general/ $10 children
(517) 243-6040