Few authors have gotten so much mileage from a relative as Patrick Dennis, author of the 1955 novel “Auntie Mame.” The endearingly eccentric Mame Dennis (based on his real aunt) has enjoyed a very long life in her travels from the printed page to the theatrical stage (without music in 1958 and with in 1966) and finally to a big screen technicolor extravaganza in 1974, unfortunately the weakest of its incarnations.
The original comedy is on stage through May 22 in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Theatre and the ebullient lifestyle of the title character is just as refreshing — if much less off-beat — more than a half-century later.
Mame (Pat Berardi) is lady who lives life to the fullest, surrounded by a coterie of wild and wacky individuals, not the least of which is her best friend Vera Charles (Mary Ann Moran), a theatrical star who views life through a martini glass. At the center of her world is her young nephew Patrick (Dillon Slagle/Justin Williams), who arrives at her Beekman Place apartment with Norah Muldoon (Dawn Marie Hagerty) during one of his aunt’s “small” soirees. Patrick’s father is recently deceased and he has come to live with Mame, his only relative, under the restrictively puritanical eye of Dwight Babcock (Roy Bronkema) of the Knickerbocker Bank.
The background for Mame’s shifting lifestyle is reflected in her large and elegant apartment which goes from prohibition through the Depression to a literary period and turn at Swedish modern. The SBCT set, designed by Phil Patnaude, takes over the entire stage, with large, gilt-topped columns at each side and a proscenium-wide second floor hallway. Two large areas in the main level wall are used — although not nearly enough — as a background for Mame’s ever-changing decor but the sweeping staircase which can allow the colorful lady to make her initial appearance is, sadly, missing. Instead, the flamboyant character walks on through her guests in a less-than-spectacular introduction to what follows.
Set pieces are at a minimum here as are props, even though the setting for Mame’s life banquet should be easily detected in the dramatic rise and fall of her circumstances. Difficult to tell whether it’s feast or famine in the Dennis domicile, so sparse are all the “trimmings.”. The same holds true of the costumes. Mame should be elegant and dashing, no matter her finances. Ms. Berardi’s outfits did nothing to reflect that never-say-die attitude.
She and Ms. Moran are two of SBCT’s most reliable performers. Here, however, they do not seem easily suited to their respective roles. They do their best, but the results are rather awkward. Case in point: a scene in which Vera is required to dangle over the hall railing for almost the entire scene. I began to worry that her arms would go to sleep and the focus definitely shifted from the center stage action.
As in many community theaters, finding actors and actresses of similar ages to portray couples can be a problem. Stephen Bailey is Mame’s southern beau, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, usually played by a man of middle years, and does such a good job that the disparity is apparent but not uncomfortable. He also is believable as the Irish poet who settles in Beekman Place to help Mame with her memoirs. It was jarring, however, to find that Japanese houseboy Ito had morphed into an extremely tall African American, also called Ito, who carried out his duties frequently garbed in ridiculous outfits.
Dillon Slagle delivers a sturdily thoughtful portrayal of Patrick, Mame’s “little love,” as a young boy, with Seyhan Kilic very effective as Agnes Gooch, the girl from Speedo who becomes Mame’s secretarial “sponge” and returns home for further advice after her fling at living has unexpected results. Ms Kilic also appears briefly as the dyspeptic Mother Burnside, although her bare feet were puzzling.
The rest of the cast does double and sometimes triple duty as various guests, allies and sometimes impediments of the redoubtable force of nature that is “Auntie Mame.”
“AUNTIE MAME” plays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through May 22 in the theater at 403 N MainSt., South Bend. Prices vary. For reservations, call 234-1112 between noon and 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.org.