In late October, the Harker Conservatory’s fall play, “You Can’t Take it With You,” showcased from a Thursday to a Saturday in the Blackford Theater, attracting full-house seating and generating lots of laughs.
“You Can’t Take it With You,” by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, was originally performed in 1936, and centers around the eccentric Sycamore family – all of whom have hobbies they love (though are often terrible at), and who live by the philosophy, “Don’t do anything you aren’t going to enjoy doing.” In the play, Alice Sycamore (Cecilia Lang-Ree, grade 11), the most “normal” member of the family, gets engaged to the equally normal Tony Kirby (Kovid Puria, grade 12), vice-president of Kirby and Co. When Tony’s parents come over to meet the family, chaos and hilarity ensue.
The process of getting the show from page to stage started when director Jeff Draper chose the famous piece. “I take many things into account when selecting a play,” Draper said. “I need a show that has many roles for the large number of students we serve with the Harker Conservatory. I also need challenges for the actors, and especially for the female students. Most plays are written by men, for male directors, and for a largely male cast. I like plays that tell stories about women and girls, or at least stories that appeal to them. And I look for a genre or style that will complement those done by the student directors and Laura Lang-Ree’s musical each spring. Because many students perform in all three productions, I like to provide new styles to learn about.”
Once Draper had decided on “You Can’t Take it With You,” it came time to cast. When Tina Crnko, grade 12, auditioned, Draper made the call to change the central character of Grandpa to Grandma. According to Draper, “Tina showed up and proved that she was the one who had the gravitas to convey the important themes of the play. She effortlessly created a grounded, wise and well-constructed character capable of owning the important role. And the story seemed more ‘balanced’ for a contemporary re-telling of the play because of the switch.”
What followed casting was six weeks of rehearsals, during which time sets were built and costumes made or ordered. Paul Vallerga, technical director at the middle school, created the set design of the Sycamore’s living room, including stairs that convincingly disappeared to the unseen upper floor of the house and doors to the kitchen and basement (the latter of which had to convincingly light up for several fireworks scenes). Natti Pierce-Thomson designed the lights, and as Draper says, “they add so much believability and beauty to the show.” Caela Fujii designed the costumes and provided the props. “Those she couldn’t find,” Draper says, “she bought or built herself. She is a miracle worker and I love working with her!”
Tristan Killeen, grade 12, who played Mr. De Pinna, an ice man who stopped by the Sycamore home eight years ago and never left, said one rehearsal stands out more to him than any other. “One rehearsal, we talked as a cast about the message of the play, and almost everyone in the cast seemed to have a profound moment of introspection in which they learned something about how this play related to their own lives and the lives of those around them,” Killeen says.
“I looked forward to every rehearsal for this play, as they were really what brought the cast together to share the message that this play had to offer,” said Puria, the “normal” fiancé. “In every rehearsal, I learned something new about Tony Kirby, and I am grateful that I had the chance to play the role. It is the creation of the character that makes theater fascinating, and every rehearsal added a new dynamic to the role. I loved every moment in the process of this production.”
Draper worked hard to keep rehearsals interesting. “To keep the comedy fun and see it grow, we played games with the show in rehearsal. One game is called ‘Funny, Smelly, Popular,’ and each actor picks a character they will find hilarious, another that is endowed with extreme body odor, and a third that is very cute, beautiful, etc. They act the show as usual, but with this additional layer adding humor and fun to the blocking, line readings, entrances and actions. We also played tag one time, and it really kept the stage movements very interesting,” he says.
Then it was show time.
The cast hit the stage on opening night with tons of energy. Between Mr. Sycamore (Govi Dasu, grade 12) and Mr. Di Pinna blowing up fireworks in the basement, Alice’s sister Essie (Lydia Werthen, grade 11), dancing across the room, Grandma collected and grounded in the center of the room, and the entire family’s predictable clash with the Kirbys, there was never a dull, stale or boring moment. The cast balanced the play’s laugh-out-loud humor with the underlying message to hold onto the things that truly matter to produce a lively performance with a resonating message.
One of the funniest moments in the play comes when Penny Sycamore – mother of Alice and Essie, and played by Namrata Vakkalagadda, grade 10 – suggests the Sycamores and the Kirbys play a game where she says one word, and everyone must write down the first word that comes to mind. She reads the Kirby’s answers out loud at the game’s end, and discovers that Mrs. Kirby’s responses are quite telling about her relationship with her husband.
Crnko says this was actually her favorite moment in the play, calling it a cast victory. “Mr. Draper challenged us to get a 30-second laugh from the Friday night audience on the moment. We successfully reached 23 seconds on Thursday night, 31 seconds on Friday night, and 35 seconds on Saturday night. We were all over the moon,” says Crnko.
The play’s message of letting go of the things you can’t take with you resonated with audience and cast alike.
“Do what you love to do,” Puria says of the play’s overall message. “The argument between Grandma and Mr. Kirby (Alex Najibi, grade 12) at the end of the play really conveys this message to the audience. Mr. Kirby works long hours and makes loads of money, but he is not truly happy with himself (or his indigestion). The play says, through the character of Mr. Kirby, that finding one’s passion should be the goal of life.”
“A great joy of mine in the past few days is hearing from those who came to the show about how it not only had them laughing and lifted their spirits, but also caused them to reflect in the same way that the cast did,” says Killeen.
Crnko believes that, “In an age when we’re each wrapped up in our own ambitions, overrun by all that needs to be accomplished, and blinded by successes and failures, this show reveals what still remains deeply human about each of us: the need to feel connected.” She goes on to say that, “Grandma Vanderhof, the character I was lucky enough to play, understands what many of us often forget. Grandma knows that the true purpose of life is to be happy, and that monetary success or nominal importance are only superficial means by which many attempt to reach happiness. Mrs. Vanderhof sees that family and connection to those you love makes life worth living.”
She quoted a line from the play – “It’s only a handful of the lucky ones who can look back [at life] and say they even came close [to happiness]” – that perhaps best implies the resonating message at the heart of this comedy: be one of the lucky ones.