Soulpepper takes on one of the great ensemble pieces and worlds collide
by Gregory W. Bunker
There could hardly be a more fitting theme for today’s audience than questioning the motivations behind the American Dream, and this light-hearted comedy delivers this eloquently. Kaufman and Hart’s play—which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937—also showcases the timeless problem of dealing with the expectations of families; especially the expectations of the families of loved ones. It is a love story between the daughter of the big, eccentric, happy-go-lucky Sycamore family and the son of the small, serious, Wall Street-powered Kirbys. At the behest of their courting children the two families meet for dinner in the chaotic household of the Sycamores. Worlds collide. Ballet, wrestling, orchid collecting, snake keeping, xylophone playing, and firework making are only a sampling of the protagonists’ pursuits of happiness that make this production so lively.
Leading the liveliness is the brilliant Eric Peterson as Grandpa. It was clear that the audience was excited to see Peterson outside of his role as grumpy old Oscar Leroy on CTV’s Corner Gas, and his refreshing, frank optimism and enthusiasm for life in this production did not disappoint. Peterson’s showdown with the at-first stuffy and then soft and sympathetic John Jarvis (Mr. Kirby) in Act III was simply a fantastic, cathartic close to the debate defining happiness in this play. The superb Nancy Palk was always in her element as the well-meaning though often embarrassing (and always funny) Penny Sycamore. Another standout performance is Diego Matamoros as the opinionated (“That stinks!”) and worldly Russian ballet teacher. The lovebirds Krystin Pellerin (as Alice Sycamore) and Gregory Prest (as Tony Kirby) were excellent individually, but together they could at times seem physically distant, which may have been deliberate to reflect norms in the thirties, but this also made their love less intense than their words suggested. This is a very small point, though, compared to their chemistry with the rest of the cast, which is indeed familial and very real. It is truly touching to see Prest try, in vain, to convince his parents that the Sycamore family, as crazy as they may seem, are caring, loving, and accepting of him and his family too, and you can’t help but feel for the angelic, apologetic Pellerin who desperately begs her family to “be normal”…at least when the Kirbys are over. The supporting cast is strong and extremely quirky except for the grounded Andre Sills (as Donald) and Sabryn Rock (as Rheba), who play well off of the chaos unfolding around them. Finally, the production (Joseph Ziegler) of the play is top notch, from the set of the Sycamore’s large NYC living room (Christina Poddubiuk) to the carefully controlled lighting (Steven Hawkins) and sound (Richard Feren).
While not a commentary on capitalism itself—there is plenty of communism bashing courtesy of Matamoros’ Kolenkhov—the play is a reminder that happiness is a relative concept, and that it too often gets confused with materialistic ambition. Both families are living the American Dream, but in very different ways. The Sycamores show that you really can’t take your wealth with you in the end, and Soulpepper has done an excellent job bringing this notion so clearly to life.