Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2007
"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
- Mark Twain
I am sure Philip King had this famous quotation from Mark Twain in mind when he penned See How They Run back in 1944. In the grand tradition of British farce it is full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.
That does not prevent See How They Run from being a good evening’s entertainment. If you are in the mood for a door-slamming, face-slapping, vicars-in-their-knickers good time, this is the play for you!
And speaking of vicars, why is it that Anglicans (aka Church of England or C of E) are so inherently funny? I am an Episcopalian, which is the American strain of Anglicanism, and, just like penguins, we cannot help being amusing in that stiff, waddling, suit-wearing kind of way. We cannot dance and to hear us tackle a Spiritual on a Sunday morning is appalling. When threatened with hurricane, fire and famine, we are the first to throw a fund-raising cocktail party. Heck, we ARE a farce!
So it is no wonder that when King sat down to write something funny, he immediately thought of the Anglican clergy and their flocks. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the genesis for this play wasn’t King’s desire to write a scene in which three Anglican clergy (two vicars, one in his dog-collar and one in his underwear, and a bishop in his pajamas) and two other men randomly dressed as Anglican clergy (a Russian spy and a U.S. soldier) chased each other gaily through garden in the moonlight. How that scene came to be and how the situation sorted itself out afterwards were of little consequence. What would sell the tickets was the promise of Anglicans behaving even more ridiculously than usual.
In this case the Vicar of Merton-cum-Middlewick, one Reverend Lionel Toop (Ted Phelps), has recently married a vivacious and curvaceous American actress named Penelope (Sarah Cooke) much to the consternation of all the maiden ladies of his parish, especially the tweedy Miss Skillon (Kathy Wohlfeld). Set just post-World War II, American troops are still stationed in Britain, and the Cold War is afoot with Russia, not Germany, now the enemy. On the Saturday night that Reverend Toop and the church glee singers head off to entertain some of the brave boys in uniform, Penelope is visited by an old actor friend, Clive Winton (Ted Sickels), now serving as a Corporal, and her uncle, the Bishop of Lax (Fred Gibbons). Miss Skillon, who had arrived earlier to complain that Penelope had usurped her rightful role as decorator of the pulpit for the annual Harvest Festival, is still lurking on the premises, as is the maid, Ida (Burnell Shively), who is trying unsuccessfully to enjoy her evening off. The Reverend Arthur Humphrey (Mike Sanders), who is preaching the following morning, shows up, as does an escaped Russian spy (Tracy Trimm), desperate for a safe disguise. Finally the local constabulary, in the person of Sergeant Towers (Myron Koch), comes to discover what all the commotion is about, which leads to the restoration of everyone’s rightful clothing but really no happy ending because the muddle and mayhem threaten to continue long after the final curtain has rung down.
While there was great merriment in the opening night performance, there was also a hesitancy and slight lags in the timing. Not all the gifted amateurs on the stage were playing at the same level. Just when things should have been side-splittingly pee-in-your-pants hilarious they were a mere giggle. No doubt some of that was opening night jitters. I always feel like a bounder and a cad reviewing community theatre productions on opening night because I know that two or three performances in to the run everyone will have hit their stride and the show will have improved greatly.
That being said, director Kate Gulliver has coaxed some delightful performances out of her cast, which can be enjoyed for their individual merits even if the cast doesn’t play particularly well together as a whole. I adored Phelps bumbling, mumbling Lionel Toop, all vague hand motions and gentle worry as he remains helplessly unable to do anything, really. Even his determined tours through house and garden wielding a poker clad only in his boxers, undershirt and a lace tablecloth are all for naught.
I also enjoyed Wohlfeld’s performance as the ultimate Anglican spinster. After a first act spent in high dudgeon over the pulpit decorations, Penelope’s penchant for wearing rousers, and Ida’s puncturing of her bicycle tires, she spends the rest of the play in a drunken stupor with her knickers literally in a twist, draped over sofas and balustrades, and stuffed repeatedly into the coat closet with clergymen in various states of undress.
Shively is all spunk and righteous cockney indignation as Ida. She is also a very attractive woman and a very adroit comedienne. I was pleased to see her get one of the biggest hands at the curtain call.
Cooke is also a very attractive woman, but a lesser comic, which is a pity. And Sickels seems to be channeling the late Bing Crosby, which is sometimes just right and often quite wrong for the situation at hand.
Sanders dithers beautifully as the hapless Reverend Humphrey who only came to take the Harvest Festival service and somehow winds up in a madhouse. And Trimm is a suitably evil Red Menace, wild for the Communist overthrow of the Capitalist pigs, which he is sure is imminent.
All of this mayhem takes place on Bill Camp’s handsome set – one of the nicest I have seen on the Ghent stage in a long while – which allows for a free flow of traffic while managing to look like a proper Vicarage. Vivian Wachsberger and Joanne Maurer have provided fine costumes for everyone but Penelope, who looks oddly modern in the midst of all the wartime austerity and Anglican reserve of the other characters’ clothes.
See How They Run is an upbeat ending to the 2006-2007 Ghent season. If you are looking for a laugh, this is the best one on the boards this May.
See How They Run runs weekends through June 3, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs just a tad over two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007