There’s a feeling of uneasy quietness that surrounds the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s production of John Patrick’s The Curious Savage. Directed by Glen Walker, the drama — which looks at the juxtaposition of morality and kindness between mental patients and pillars of society — has a sleepy quality that numbs the audience into a sort of claustrophobic state.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1950 as a vehicle for Lillian Gish, The Curious Savage is the story of aging socialite Mrs. Ethel Savage who, recently widowed, has been forcefully committed to a high-priced insane asylum by her three greedy stepchildren. Having attempted to find a career in acting, carrying around a giant teddy bear as her constant companion, and dying her hair blue, Mrs. Savage has become quite eccentric in her behaviour.
But the truth is that her family is much more concerned over her control of the family fortune, which she plans to use as a memorial fund in her late husband’s name.
Upon entering the asylum, Mrs. Savage befriends five patients which have formed a tight-knit family themselves, while removing themselves from society. Observing the patients’ love and devotion, Mrs. Savage begins to question just who is really insane. Is it the sweet and kind patients living on the edge of madness, or is it the aggressive and greedy stepchildren who are considered to be pillars of society? Mrs. Savage has one last ace up her sleeve: to pull a fast one on her family, proving that even behind locked doors and barred windows she still holds all the aces.
Actress Linda Driscoll, in the role of Mrs. Ethel Savage, gives a consistently strong performance while carrying the plot on her shoulders. Despite her eccentricities, Mrs. Savage is easily the sanest character in the production and, with grace and style, Driscoll breezes through the show. Compassionate, kind and emotionally strong, she gives the audience a solid focal point to carry them through the drama.
But the performances of the five mental patients are the true highlight of The Curious Savage: Rebekah Fallaise as Fairy May, Jessica Mauro as Florence, Josh Butcher as Hannibal, Frankie Black as Jeffrey, and Carole Jones as Mrs. Paddy. The most sympathetic of the characters, the actors give sincere performances as severely damaged people who genuinely love and accept each other despite their obvious emotional disorders. As Mrs. Savage takes on a motherly role to the characters, she has individual potent moments with each of the characters that become the most endearing moments of the show.
Although each actor gets their own individual moment to shine, Fallasie as the loveable Fairy May gives possibly the stand-out performance of the entire production. Full of energy and surreal stories, she is incredibly adorable and has the brightest moments. Meanwhile, Josh Butcher brings good-natured humour as tone-deaf violinist Hannibal, and Jessica Mauro and Frankie Black play Florence and Jeffrey with a sense of dignity — despite being the two most damaged characters in the show.
A special shout-out goes to Carole Jones for the role of Mrs. Paddy. Often fading into the background of each scene she is in, the few times she takes centre stage (most notably in the second act), she delivers the funniest lines. Yet, in her final moments on stage, she delivers the most potent dialogue of all.
Further praise goes to David Morris for his role of Mrs. Savage’s stepson, Senator Titus Savage. He is as convincing as a politician that he could easily slither off the stage and enter the current Peterborough mayoral race.
Yet, while it is filled with sincere performances by a very talented cast, The Curious Savage isn’t without its problems. In his original notes to the production, writer John Patrick wrote of how the characters of the mental patients are never to be used as over-the-top comedic characters and are to be treated with as much dignity as the “sane” characters.
The result is that a delicate balance between comedy and pathos needs to be achieved. Unfortunately, Walker’s production struggles to find that balance. Obvious jokes seem to get lost in the drudgery of the drama and, with the exception of Rebekah Fallaise’s brightness and a few occasional comedic moments by Josh Butcher (most notably the scenes involving the playing cards), the rest of the characters and situations just aren’t very funny.
Further production difficulties are faced when some of the story’s twists and turns are too predictable (although in fairness this could be because what was surprising in a show written over 60 years ago has since become a cliché), and what should be obvious allegories seem lost until they are forced.
As a result — while filled with sincere performances, endearing characters, and a talented cast — The Curious Savage falls somewhere between being an unfunny comedy and a dreary melodrama.
The Curious Savage runs September 26th to October 11th at the Peterborough Theatre Guild. The show starts at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 general admission, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students, and can be purchased at the Theatre Guild box office or by calling 705-745-4211.