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First Nighter: Kathryn Forbes' I Remember Mama Well Remembered

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I Remember Mama, John Van Druten's adaptation of Mama's Bank Account, Kathryn Forbes' memoir of her early 20th-century San Francisco upbringing, opened on Broadway October 19, 1944, with Mady Christians (please don't ask who that is) in the title role and Marlon Brando making his Main Stem debut as Mama's son Nels.

The film starring Irene Dunne was released by RKO in 1948. The CBS television series, starring Peggy Wood, bowed on July 1, 1949 and ran until 1957, when sponsor Maxwell House Coffee apparently decided that though the long-running show retained its popularity, viewers were not buying the product.

Jack Cummings III's Transport Group Theatre Company revival of the play is now at the Judson Gym and the first since the initial run. What readers may want to bear in mind is that it's being reviewed here by someone who didn't see the original production but did see the movie and, furthermore, never missed a television episode. Therefore, the reviewer has an admitted sentimental attachment to the subject matter that may have no meaning for anyone born long after the series cancellation or even immediately after it. Latecomers may think I Remember Mama is old-fashioned, maybe dated, but I absolutely do not.

That being established, I'm happy to say I admire Cummings's approach, which -- as with just about everything else he does -- is nowhere near conventional. And be aware that Van Druten's episodic play, which features Mama knowing best through a series of small family complications, unabashedly relies on the handy conventions of the time. They certainly were familiar. They'd been employed, for instance, in the long-running Life With Father (opening in 1939), for which I Remember Mama is something of an answer piece.

Cummings has done something akin to a deconstruction of the work about the joys and minor woes of a striving Norwegian brood. When the audience enters the Judson Gym's basketball-court sized gym, they're confronted with 10 dining-room tables, each laden with a different sort of domestic appointment -- glasses, flat wear, napkins and doilies -- as well as books, letters and especially old typewriters in which parts of Forbes's stories are rolling from the platens. Suspended over the tables are five rows of seven lighting fixtures.

Once the audience is seated on four sides of the playing area and I Remember Mama begins, nine cast members -- all women of a certain age, which is where the unconventional deconstruction comes in -- enter and sit one each at nine of the tables. Katrina (Barbara Barrie), Forbes's version of her younger self, recites the first line of the book from which Van Druten culled the nostalgic work. It's a form of the remark that began the tv series week in and week out: "For as long as I could remember the house on Steiner Street had been home."

(Yes, that flashback to an earlier time in my life got me in the gut.)

Mentioning the members of her family, Katrin leaves her mother until last, noting that "Most of all I remember Mama." That's the point at which Mama (Barbara Andres) enters and the action begins. Katrin starts running through sequences where Mama deals in wise fashion with complications involving young daughter Dagmar (Phyllis Somerville,) middle daughter Christine (Louise Sorel), son Nels (Heather MacRae taking over the Brando part), husband Lars (Dale Soules), sisters Trina (Rita Gardner), Jenny (Alice Cannon) and Sigrid (Susan Lehman) and English boarder. Mr. Hyde (Lynn Cohen).

Although various developments such as a sick cat, Mr. Hyde's reading-aloud contributions to the Steiner Street home, squabbles with seemingly penurious Uncle Chris (Cohen) and Katrin's loss of belief in her own writing are the besetting worries, the continuing undercurrent of concerns is financial, budgetary -- all of them minimized by Mama's insistence that everything can be solved without having to draw on her much invoked bank account.

(Incidentally, the deficiencies of Katrin's early writing are exactly like those Jo March faces in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. They clear up when the same piece of advice comes their way: Write about what you know. And you might want to check if Sally Benson was told the same thing before she commenced penning the New Yorker vignettes that became the Meet Me in St. Louis memoir and 1944 MGM musical or Ruth McKenney unfurled trhe stories behind My Sister Eileen and Wonderful Town.)

Although it's fair at the get-go for anyone watching Cummings' bold take unfold to wonder how well it'll go down, it's no time at all until it makes perfect sense -- and not just as a gimmick. A good deal of the success is due, of course, to the playing by women who simply take on the roles.

And note that in the case of those playing youngsters or men, they never do anything like comment on their being women assuming unexpected assignments. Cohen as Mr. Hyde and the wild-haired, belligerent Uncle Chris registers strongly. MacRae with a single braid falling down her back is appealing as the likable Nels as well as Aunt Trina's shy suitor Mr. Thorkelson. Dale Soules makes a perfectly fine Papa as well as the doctor ministering to Dagmar.

Barrie's playing Katrin's older and younger selves gets the convincing balance. Gardner, Cannon and Lehman, acting women their age, may have an easier time of it, but they each do nicely as Mama's more prickly sisters. Somerville is a bouncy Dagmar and also gives the role of Uncle Chris's longtime companion quiet dignity. Sorel lends Christine the right sibling edge and brings the proper hauteur to Florence Dana Moorhead, the celebrated author Mama consults about Katrin's writing talents.

Most of all, there's Andres' Mama. She has well in hand the warmth, understanding and direct approach required.

As this I Remember Mama strides along, it can increasingly seem as if Cummings has a strong reason behind casting as he has. More than anything the script is presenting a woman's world. With only women on stage, he suggests that families are, possibly more often than not, women's domains. If this is what he has in mind, he realizes his intentions extremely well.

Closing trivia that isn't so trivial: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II produced I Remember Mama, which explains, at least to some extent, why Rodgers supplied the score for the forgettable 1979 musical treatment with Liv Ullman as the gallantly persevering mother.

More significantly, Rodgers and Hammerstein later wrote another blockbuster show about a mother who sets a family right -- The Sound of Music with problem-solving mom Maria von Trapp. If you want, you can think of I Remember Mama as their wind-up to the later one, and enjoy it on that level.