Take Me Along
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
March 5, 2008
As evidenced by the current marvelous revival of Take Me Along at Irish Rep, the American penchant for nostalgia is a curious phenomenon. Coactive with the dominant consumerist culture's centrifugal spin of the new is the equally powerful gravitational pull of the past, a homemade rag doll plopped down amidst a pile of gyroscoping Barbies. And even if for many Americans the "past" doesn't extend much beyond their own childhoods, the dizzy unease generated by the perpetual motion machine cycling us through desire, consumption, satiation, and dissatisfaction often leads us to seek some sense of secure footing in fetishized fragments of those childhoods. Throughout the past hundred years of the "American Century," while simultaneously grasping at every innovation in products, thought, and mores, we've also been dogged by the nagging suspicion that something of irreplaceable value is being lost in the process.
Take Me Along premiered at the end of the Eisenhower era and starred TV legend Jackie Gleason; it was adapted from Eugene O'Neill's 1930s comedy Ah, Wilderness, which in turn starred Broadway legend George M. Cohan. The original play was itself a highly idealized portrait of O'Neill's own youth in the first decade of the 20th century. From the vantage point of post-9/11 America then, the musical is a palimpsest of that American century, the imminent end of which was announced in the roar of the collapsing Twin Towers. Take your pick: The show can represent post-WWII/pre-Vietnam American triumphalism, an antidote to Depression-era despair, or the youthful innocence of a maturing republic just about to wholly succumb to the temptations of global empire. But while these ruminations are admittedly a downer, the production that sparked them is itself fast moving, funny, and packed with terrific performances. One just can't help being aware of the bitter sprinkles strewn atop the ice cream sundae charm.
Director Charlotte Moore invites thoughts of nostalgia by positioning her actors against the visual delight of James Morgan's handpainted backdrop that rings the three-quarter stage in a candy-coated watercolor depicting the main street of the musical's Connecticut locale. Blessedly unmiked, her production allows the gentleness of O'Neill's domestic fantasy to unfold in its own sweet way, without pushing or overemphasis, by creating a believable community on stage. It is the Fourth of July, 1906, and that community has gathered in front of the home of Nat and Essie Miller to celebrate newspaper editor Miller's donation of a new engine to the town's fire department. Home from Yale for vacation is the Millers' eldest son Art, and preparing to go off to that same Ivy League institution is the younger son, the bookish Richard. As has often been noted in critical commentary, the respectable, loving, WASPy Millers represent the functional inverse of O'Neill's own highly dysfunctional and constantly battling Irish Catholic family. But O'Neill being O'Neill, lurking just beneath the surface of edenic good ole summertime fun is the "little green snake" of alcoholism and failure embodied by wisecracking, hard-drinking Uncle Sid, Essie's brother come into town from Waterbury for the festivities. A liar as well as a lush, Sid has been courting Nat's sister Lily for over 10 years, but as she points out early in the show, he only proposes marriage to her when he's drunk and practically ignores her whenever he's sober. Much of the plot hinges on whether Sid will get himself together enough to finally settle down into the kind of responsible life with Lily emblematized by his sister and her husband.
Simultaneously paralleling both the stability of the Miller marriage and the tumult of Sid and Lily's relationship is Richard's adolescent love for 14-year-old Muriel McComber. Proclaiming their eternal love by imaging the ever-more gruesome deaths that would result from betraying each other ("I Would Die"), both O'Neill and this show's creators (Bob Merrill music/lyrics and Joseph Stein and Robert Russell book) use their romance to poke gentle fun at the lovers' pretensions we all indulge in from time to time. The teenage couple's dreams of marrying are thrown into crisis when her father overhears Richard reading passages of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám aloud (very smutty stuff from an Edwardian perspective), and he forbids Muriel from having anything more to do with him while confining her to the house for the rest of the summer. A note she is forced to write to her beau propels Richard into a night of drunken debauchery with one of the town's loose women and the beginnings of an adult understanding of his own weakness to the allure of demon rum (or in this case Jack Daniels).
That true love of the heterosexual kind eventually conquers all is a foregone conclusion (this is a Broadway musical of the 1950s), but watching the characters work through the necessary misunderstandings, recriminations, and reconciliations that comprise the plot and get the audience to the rousing finale is all part of the fun. Talk about nostalgia—audiences of the time really did seem to want to believe that a happy ending could be possible for a sensitive woman in love with an irresponsible drunkard. And while Sid is given a moment when he actually behaves like an adult, the preponderance of the evidence would suggest that Lily is dooming herself to a life of never-ending disappointment.
If the original play was dominated by Cohan and the original production of the musical by Gleason, this production rightly belongs to the subtle, rueful performance of Beth Glover as Aunt Lil. Her three big numbers "We're Home," "Promise Me a Rose," and "I Get Embarrassed" should be preserved for posterity on DVD and placed on the syllabus of every musical theatre training program in the country. All ingenues should be required to learn how a song can be "put across" with simplicity, specificity, and without histrionics. Every time Sid betrays her love, the mixture of pain, forgiveness, and disappointment emanating from Glover is incandescent. While the highlight of the evening, her performance is more than ably supported by William Parry and Donna Bullock as the elder Millers (Parry's performance of "Staying Young" is particularly affecting), with yeoman's work being done by Gordon Stanley and Anastasia Barzee as they breath new life into the Broadway stock roles of disapproving father and small-town whore, respectively. And while the younger members of the cast don't quite measure up to their elders, it's perhaps because the innocence they are called upon to depict is of a kind they themselves have never experienced.
And then there's Don Stephenson's Sid. Stephenson struggles valiantly to fill the outlines of this role tailor-made to Gleason's plus-size dimensions, achieving many stunning moments in the process. While lacking neither talent nor smarts, however, the part eventually defeats him. We can no longer just laugh at the funny drunk on stage. We've come to know too much about what Sid's behavior really means. What in 1959 was probably uproarious now just induces uncomfortable squirms. So while we can't ever return to that state of ignorant bliss, Take Me Along offers us the chance to reflect on what we've lost while traveling along the road to knowledge.