Mother Knows Best

Clarence Day Jr.'s novel Life With Father, about his eccentric old dad and the close-knit family that revolved around him, made a delightful play and a wonderfully funny film (William Powell and Irene Dunne were a brilliant comic duo). Director Michael Curtiz's impeccable timing in the 1947 movie is hard to equal, but the production at the Denver Center Theatre Company manages to move like greased lightning. It's a kick.

The story unfolds in turn-of-the-century New York City, where Clarence Day Sr. holds court over his loving family. He's a strict ruler with all kinds of nonsensical principles that must be somehow circumvented by wife and four sons alike. His wife, Vinnie, has absolutely no trouble twisting him around her little finger. And though the boys are less skilled in circumnavigating their dad, even they find ways to get what they need out of him.

Father Day tries to get Vinnie to keep household records ("This house must be run like a business," he says), but Vinnie is more blessed in the right brain than in the left. So she recommends he open charge accounts all over town since the stores keep excellent records. Hmmm, sounds easy enough--funny how those bills do run up.

Meanwhile, Vinnie's cousin Cora comes to visit with her young friend Mary Skinner (Karron Graves is fresh as clover in the role), and the eldest son, Clarence Jr., falls head over heels. Unfortunately, his father has had his own suit of clothes cut down for Clarence, and the young man finds he cannot do anything in the suit that his father would not do--like kneeling in church or holding a girl on his lap. So the young man must find the money to buy a suit in which he can be himself.

But the real tension erupts when Vinnie discovers that her husband has never been baptized--and that he flatly refuses to do so now. All her scheming turns then to coaxing or cajoling him into heaven. All his protestations are to no avail: He thinks that only he rules this roost.

Father is an eccentric, and we love him for it--he blusters about like a wet rooster when he feels imposed upon. He sees himself as reasonable and Vinnie as unreasonable. But Vinnie's rationale is simply more cosmic than Mr. Day's business-like practicality. Vinnie is usually right, and Father is usually wrong.

Randy Moore gives a superb, naturalistic performance as Father--quite a departure from William Powell's larger-than-life film characterization. Moore keeps us laughing at Father's foibles, frustrations and lack of self-knowledge, but he always stays within the bounds of real life. And he is perfectly matched with Carol Halstead as Vinnie. This is a genteel screwball performance to rival Irene Dunne's--but again, more realistic than Dunne's. Halstead is at every turn utterly beguiling.

And the pair is backed by a terrific cast. Douglas Harmsen makes young Clarence a blustering, awkward adolescent lover and spirited son--a surprising, layered and charming performance. Kathleen M. Brady sails in like a frigate loaded with comic cargo as Cousin Cora, and William Denis as the dreaded Reverend Dr. Lloyd gives traditional religion a comic name.

Mr. Day tries to control the universe of his household, and Vinnie does spend all her time trying to "see to his comfort." But make no mistake--Vinnie's household management includes managing Father. And despite all his convictions, despite even his own blind patriarchal willfulness, love is more powerful than he is, and he eventually gives in to her (reasonable) demands.

All this may sound dated by the standards of the Nineties, but this play paints a portrait of another era. We are never made to feel that playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse are commenting on our own time. The reason it can still speak to us is that it is wise about human nature. When men rule the world politically and financially, then women have to find creative ways to manage them in order to make the world a bearable place to live.

And if it's an optimistic view of family life and turn-of-the-century culture, the underlying messages are still sober-headed: All of his principles notwithstanding, father doesn't always know best; boys grow up and define themselves away from their fathers; and female wisdom is a powerful force in any universe--even a patriarchy.

Life With Father, through April 13 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 891-4100.

 
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