Tag Archives: comedy

The Story Behind the Play

Photo courtesy of Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.

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.

James Gregory coming to Town!

James Gregory grew up watching stand-up comedy on programs like Jack Benny, Milton Berle and the Ed Sullivan Show. After some nudging from his friends, he started doing open mic stand-up in Atlanta and things just took off. Today he performs his down-home stories of food, funerals and funny relatives to sold-out theatres, casino’s and corporate events working 48 weeks of the year. He’s also a regularly invited guest on national radio shows, like The Bob & Tom Show, Rick and Bubba and The Big Show with John Boy and Billy.

EJG from Markarly in his career he earned the moniker, “Funniest Man in America,” but, he’s quick to tell you, “At that time there were only 13 states.” His jokes are squeaky clean as, he says, “My mother wouldn’t let me tell them if they weren’t.” It’s the kind of show you could feel comfortable bringing your date or your grandmother.

What’s really unique about Gregory is his appeal to people of all ages, races, creeds and colors.  It’s not unusual to see three generations rolling in the aisles. He comes off as that funny uncle that everyone gathers around at family reunions, because he has the best stories – and so reminds people of their own families.

While his routines include such Southern subjects as covered-dish suppers, road trips to Stuckey’s, and the healthy aspects of fried foods, it’s a mistake to consider him a regional comic. Says Gregory, “To me, Southern comedians are guys who get onstage and talk about pickup trucks, rifle racks and cow-tipping. I don’t talk about the South; I just deliver my material with a Southern accent. My comedy is based on the real life-the people I grew up with. My notions about food came from them. They all eat fried foods and many of them are in their eighties. Meanwhile you read in the news how some health nut kicked the bucket jogging on the way home from the health food store.”

He says, “People come to a comedy club to laugh. It seems like the new thing in comedy today is ‘stream of consciousness’ or ‘cerebral’ material. I doubt if a husband and wife ever looked at each other on their way to a comedy club and said, ‘Gee, I hope this guy is going to be real cerebral tonight.’ I think they say, ‘He sure better be funny.'”

You could image that after 30 years, a comedian might become a bit jaded. Not Gregory. When he hits the stage, he comes alive like someone just plugged him in, and his fans adore him.  After each show, he truly enjoys meeting with fans and signing autographs.  He says, “We’re living in such a cynical age, sometimes people don’t believe me when I tell them, ‘I’m really glad to be here’ during my show. But it’s true. I owe them all a debt of gratitude. If not for them, I wouldn’t get to do what I most love.

People wanting to see James Gregory at The Town Theatre, Saturday August 6th can find tickets and information for the shows at www.towntheatre.com or by calling 803-799-2510.