Baltimore’s Jewish Theatre Workshop kicked off its eighth season Feb. 7 with a curious choice of plays — The Curious Savage, that is.
This 1950 social satire may strike some as ripe for rediscovery, while others may just find it ripe. But the game cast of community actors you’ll meet at the Weinberg JCC Straus Auditorium believe in it and will help playgoers suspend disbelief long enough for an evening of fun, a few laughs, and maybe even a tug or two on the heartstrings.
This is playwright John Patrick’s take on the timeless stage gag about the asylum inmates who turn out to be saner than the society that locked them away. There are a few extra wrinkles to it, however, mostly involving a subtext about rejecting material goods and the “illusion of contentment” in favor of forging truer bonds to the world.
Patrick famously warned directors to avoid overly exaggerating the disabilities of the inmate characters for fear of robbing them of “warmth and dignity.” At the JTW, Director Etan Weintraub might have taken that warning more to heart, for too many in the cast are allowed to go for broad comic effects rather than for nuance and charm.
Happily, the production has a couple of experienced players in the central roles of eccentric Ethel Savage and her mercenary stepson, Senator Titus Savage. It is Titus who has his stepmother committed to the Cloisters sanatorium at the start of the play for what he sees as a threat to cut him and his siblings out of their late father’s estate.
Nancy Blum endears us to new arrival Ethel Savage as she meets her fellow residents at the asylum with gentle concern and amused acceptance. Even in a silly blue wig and clutching her teddy bear companion, Blum makes us see her decency and humanity.
Ron Zyna, playing the Machiavellian mother-chucker, is spot-on with his earnest outrage and authority. His Titus does not think there is anything at all comical about his predicament or extreme in his actions. That gives the play its spine and interest, even when others in the cast have set their sites on sitcom laughs.
Melissa Ostroff, Kristin Hessenauer, Willie Drayton, Will Fleagle and Lisa Jacobs play the asylum residents. Scott Ference and Deb Carson are the siblings going along with the conspiracy to commit Ethel. And Ariella McCown and Avraham Sonenthal play the institution staff members who eventually awake to their responsibility.
Director Weintraub makes an interesting choice in placing the play in the 1980s, both underscoring the “age of greed” theme and giving modern audiences something to relate to. He might have gone even farther here than the costumes and occasional nods to topical events like Titus.
The set consists of a basic three-walled set has a half-dressed look. But Set Designer Amalia Kotlicky shows resourcefulness on an undoubtedly limited budget.
A program of the Jewish Community Center, the JTW has a primary mission of bringing appropriate theater to Baltimore’s observant Jewish community. Not everyone on stage these days is a Shomer Shabbat artist, though, and the audience appears just as diversified.
The Curious Savage amounts to a successful outreach for the young company. There is room for improvement, but there’s no denying that it stands as a positive alternative to what may be acceptable entertainment elsewhere.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.
The Curious Savage plays through February 17, 2013 on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m and Sundays at 2 p.m. — at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC Straud Auditorium — 5700 Park Heights Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 709-8589, or purchase them at the door. Online ticketing has been suspended.