By Sue Merrell
Compared to the recent news from Norway, spending an evening with Norwegian immigrants of a century ago is as refreshing as running from the sauna to the snow bank.
That doesn’t mean the world of a hundred years ago was without problems, but Hope Summer Repertory Theatre’s “I Remember Mama” is certainly a family saga of hope and hardiness.
Based on the book “Mama’s Bank Accoun” by Kathryn Forbes, John Van Druten’s stage play is a sort of sepia-tone sitcom, a collection of episodes with the Hanson family in 1910-1913. Mama (Susan Ericksen) figures prominently in each tale whether it’s allocating family finances, sneaking into a hospital to visit an ailing child or dealing with death. The eldest daughter, Katrin (Ali Perlwitz), is the narrator stepping in and out of the scenes with the simple addition of a big bow to her hairstyle.
The stories are engaging, with light humorous touches, but Ericksen, a longtime member of the Hope company, ties them together with a strong dramatic presence. There’s something in her kind, yet determined manner that tugs at the mama-memory in all of us.
The large cast features several standouts. Haley Galbraith, who is appearing this season as Eve in “Children of Eden” and the science officer in “The Forbidden Planet,” is a force to be reckoned with as Mama’s bossy sister, Aunt Jenny. When she stomps onto the stage, the audience braces for something fun. The same is true of Curt Tofteland who commands the stage as Mama’s irascible Uncle Chris. He can be as growly as a bear, and yet his eyes sparkle when he shares tender secrets with the children.
The children in this cast also add moments of delight. Beatrice Byrd is a shameless ham as the youngest Hanson sister, Dagmar. Her words are hard to catch but her expressions are so cute it doesn’t matter. Christian Krimendahl also does a good job as cousin Arne, and makes sure his all-important words are easily understood in one of the show’s funniest moments.
The warm browns and woods of Joseph P. Flauto’s set embrace the story with a feeling of yesterday. With a little shift in lighting and the addition of chairs or table, the apron of the stage is quickly transformed into hospital waiting room, hotel lobby or park, allowing the many scenes to move effortlessly without changing the basic set. Kristina Makowski’s turn-of-the-century costumes complete the picture.
The show is almost three hours long, including a 15-minute intermission, but director Louis Rackoff has set a fairly quick pace so it never seems too long. In fact, it’s amazing how comfortable the audience becomes with this family in three hours, watching a romance bud into a new family; seeing the siblings bicker and mature; sharing the simple pleasures of another time.
‘I Remember Mama’
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre at DeWitt Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland. Plays in rotating repertory through Aug. 13. $8-$19. 616-395-7890. http://www.hope.edu/hsrt