Guest blog by Milena Herring
It has been a dream of mine to direct You Can’t Take It With You for a long time. My love affair with this Pulitzer Prize-winning play began in 1969 when I watched, with fascination, the rehearsals of a Workshop Theatre production of You Can’t Take It With You. As an adolescent who loved everything to do with theatre, I often went to rehearsals with my mom when she was in a show. This was before Workshop had a home theatre of its own.
The play was rehearsed and performed in one of the wonderful old theaters on the base at Ft. Jackson. I was enchanted by the ‘30s style and setting, and I thought it was the funniest play I’d ever seen. And no wonder- – it was directed by Mary Arnold Garvin and starred some veteran Columbia actors including Jim E. Quick, Bette Herring (my mom), Tinka Tiemann, Malie Bruton Heider, Johnny DeHart, David Smoak, and Gene McKay, to name a few.
Flash forward 14 years to 1983. I was a young twenty-something, newly settled in Manhattan, trying to find work as an actress and director. One of my dear friends in New York was a fellow Columbian, Karl Allison, who had been in the city for a decade and was making his mark as a successful producer of Broadway and off-Broadway plays.
His most recent production, still in previews, was a revival of You Can’t Take It With You on Broadway. Directed by Ellis Raab, it starred Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, James Coco, and Elizabeth Wilson. Karl invited me to be his date on opening night at the Plymouth Theatre and to the cast party afterward at the Rainbow Room. After quickly accepting his invitation, I spent the following weeks searching for an elegant dress to buy and expensive jewelry to borrow.
After being introduced to numerous bold face actors and celebrities on the way into the theatre on opening night, I worried I wouldn’t be able to focus on the play. But as soon as the curtain rose I was immediately transported to the comfortable, eclectic home of the Sycamore family in 1936. The production was marvelous with outstanding performances by Robards as Martin Vanderhoff, Wilson as Penny, and Dewhurst as the Grand Duchess who wrung a laugh out of every line she uttered. The play was as hilarious and joyful as I remembered from my youth but the biggest impact of the production on me was that the director and actors created real people out of what could have been just zany stereotypes. Moreover, the director knitted the entire ensemble into a big, lovable family that anyone would be proud to call their own. The show ended with the audience and the actors singing “Good Night, Sweetheart.”
Then it was off in a limousine to the cast party. Stepping off the elevator on the 65th floor of the NBC building into the iconic Rainbow Room, we were greeted by a waiter with flutes of champagne. A full band was playing music from the 1930s at the other end of the room. Karl led me to a table beside the famous revolving dance floor. Suddenly, I found myself sitting next to Robards at a table that included, off and on throughout the evening, Lily Tomlin, Dewhurst, George Hamilton, Coco, Meg Mundy and many, many other actors and industry people. Everyone was in high spirits since it was clear the show was a big success. The rest of the night is a blur but the next morning, Frank Rich, theatre critic for the NY Times, highly praised the production in his review and declared it “A family to adopt.”
Directing the Town production of You Can’t Take It With You brings my love affair with this play full circle. This cast is truly a dream team and is complemented by an equally talented crew and production team. Danny Harrington, Town’s technical director, has created a beautiful set and Jillian Carey’s costumes perfectly match the characters and the era. It has been a privilege to work with everyone at Town Theatre again this year. This play has been with me since the beginning of my life in the theatre. And it is an honor to say it has never been a disappointment.