South Bend Civic Theatre opened its 2012 Warner Studio Theatre season Friday evening with a production of Jean Giraudoux’ “poetic satire” “The Madwoman of Chaillot”.
Written in 1943 and first produced in 1949, it tells the story of Countess Aurelia (Connie Chalko) and her group of definitely off-beat friends who band together to keep their Paris suburb of Chaillot from destruction at the hands of powerful capitalists who have smelled oil beneath its streets. Initially, this group of ruthless men stood in for France’s Nazi occupiers but now, unfortunately, is easily identified with present day big businessmen and politicians. Obviously haves and have-nots don’t change much in any time or place.
In the adaptation by Maurice Valency, it seems frequently as though the inmates are running the asylum, but the old adage about divine care of fools becomes apparent and, in the end, the right/wrong people make the descent to well-deserved oblivion down an eerily endless stairway under the Paris sewers, presumably to wander there forever. “They were wicked,” the Countess explains to some who expected the death penalty. “And wickedness evaporates.”
While waiting for them to rush to their just deserts, this “Madwoman” delivers some interesting characters, most especially those who are the close friends of the primary Countess. Veteran SBCT actress Mary Ann Moran delivers a delightful turn as Madame Constance whose constant companion is her (dead) dog Dickie. Carolyn Sherman is Madame Gabrielle, an aging virgin with imaginary friends who holds her ears and refuses to listen to anything she finds even remotely concerned with sex. Madame Josephine (Ann Umbaugh) is the brusque, be-turbaned widow of a lawyer and thus the final word on all matters of jurisprudence. Her edicts set the parameters when Aurelia & Co. decide that the capitalists must be tried in order to be punished — legally — for their crimes.
The ladies select The Ragpicker (Vincent Bilancio) as a surrogate defendant to stand in for The President (Bob Franklin), The Baron (Dan Driscoll), The Broker (Douglas Streich) and The Prospector (Libby Unruh). One of the most amusing segments of Act 1 is the search for a name for their next non-existent corporation. After the name, “All we need is a property”, The President declares. Enter The Prospector who has a definite nose for such things and the scheme is begun.
That justice triumphs is a given and one could only hope it could always be that simple.
According to the program bios, Chalko is making her theatrical debut as the Madwoman, a role played in the film version by Katherine Hepburn and in the Broadway musical (titled “Dear World”) by Angela Lansbury. Her height is a definite focus-puller but her crisply delivered performance is a sure sign of other productions to come. Her twittering trio is equally effective and none ever drop character, even when the action (such as there is) moves away.
Bilancio turns in another well-shaped character and his defense is completely logical although morally indefensible. He knows just how to hold the stage and, as with the elderly ladies and their delightfully hilarious tea party, provides a welcome relief in the second act. Here B.J.Simpson as the Sewer Man, a character with much more drive and energy than his first act persona Jardin, the city architect, kicks the Act Two proceedings into high gear.
The first act, which seems much longer than its one hour running time, could be well served with some judicious trimming. The second act picks up the pace but, on opening night, cues were slow and the result was frequently awkward. Some roles are doubled but, even so, the cast of 18 must be the largest ever assembled for a Studio Theatre production. It is under the direction of SBCT executive director Tami Ramaker.
“THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 19. For reservations and information, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.