The Transport Group continues its 20th Century Project with a lovely revival of John Van Druten’s 1944 play, I Remember Mama. Inspired by Kathryn Forbes’s semiautobiographical collection of short stories, Mama’s Bank Account, the intimate tale is told in flashback by wannabe writer Katrin Hanson (Barbara Barrie), returning to 1910 as her close-knit immigrant family struggles to get by in San Francisco. All twenty-two roles, including men, women, and children, are played by a wonderful cast of ten older actresses who never change costumes as they roam around Dane Laffrey’s engaging set. The inventive production has no stage; instead, ten tables, each covered with a particular type of household item or memorabilia, from photographs and letters to books and glassware, are illuminated by R. Lee Kennedy’s design of five rows of nine low-hanging lights, which strategically spotlight the specific table where the next scene will take place. With all the lights on, the Gym at Judson audience is visible, seated on all four sides, as if they are part of the family as well. Barbara Andres is charming as Mama, a Norwegian-born woman trying to assimilate to the American way of life. She is generally cool and calm while dealing with the daily trials and tribulations of her clan, which includes her pipe-smoking husband (Dale Soules), her daughters, Katrin, Christine (Louise Sorel), and Dagmar (Phyllis Somerville), her son, Nels (Heather MacRae), her sisters, Jenny (Alice Cannon), Sigrid (Susan Lehman), and Trina (Rita Gardner), and family patriarch Uncle Chris (Lynn Cohen). Mama forgoes the winter coat she’s always wanted as she deals with Dagmar’s trip to the hospital; a boarder, Mr. Hyde (Cohen), who is not exactly up-to-date with his rent; Trina’s desire to wed the local funeral director, Mr. Thorkelson (MacRae); finding just the right gift for Katrin’s upcoming graduation; and saving enough money so the smart Nels can continue his education.
The smaller stories play out almost like individual episodes of a television series, and indeed Mama ran on CBS from 1949 to 1957 with Peggy Wood in the title role; the play made its Broadway debut in 1944 with Oscar Homolka as Uncle Chris and Marlon Brando as Nels and was turned into a Broadway musical in 1979 with Liv Ullmann and George Hearn. In 1948, George Stevens directed the film version with Irene Dunne as Mama, Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin, and Homolka as Uncle Chris (in addition to Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Ellen Corby, and Rudy Vallee). The play was written by English playwright John Van Druten, who also penned Bell, Book and Candle; I Am a Camera, which became Cabaret; and 1931’s London Wall, which can be seen in its American debut at the Mint through April 26. That’s quite a pedigree, but the Transport Group, under the direction of Jack Cummings III (The Audience, The Boys in the Band), has shed new light on this old warhorse, starting with the casting itself, in which each of the characters can be seen as a different aspect of Mama herself as well as a celebration of mothers and motherhood in general. The 20th Century Project began last year with Michael John LaChuisa’s award-winning Queen of the Mist, set in the first decade of the century; up next will be a revival set in the 1920s.