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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ nostalgic and more in De Pere

Critic At Large

Evergreen Productions

Play programs. (Warren Gerds)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Evergreen Productions’ offering of “Cheaper by the Dozen” is interesting in a dozen ways.

One. The greater Green Bay community theater troupe is built to put on this type of play with mixed players.

Evergreen Productions has an adult arm – called Mainstage – and a youth arm – called Young Actors. “Cheaper by the Dozen” needs adult and youth cast members. Evergreen Productions is distinctive among area troupes for being able to blend casts from its umbrella organization.

Curt Christnot, the dutiful director of the production that is running for four more performances, has worked both sides of the fence for the troupe.

Two. The play is a bit of a time capsule.

It is set in the 1920s, not long after World War I. The look of people’s clothing and of household furnishings helps in the storytelling.

The audience hears that an item of clothing called a teddy and silk stockings were off limits for the Gilbreth family girls of the story.

The play is a look into some mores of the era.

There’s talk of Model T’s (a car) being painted with saucy slogans by teenage guys and talk of going to the soda fountain.

One of the school cheerleaders stops in, full of frisky energy, sporting flashy clothes and a straw hat while being quite full of himself.

The family doctor makes house calls.

Three. The story is told as flashbacks of a different kind.

The two people looking back – a sister and brother (portrayed by Grace Pieschek and Lilah Gartzke) – are young yet as they set up situations along the way. Their past is not that distant.

While the flashbacks in “Cheaper by the Dozen” today seem long ago, what happened was really not that far back in the lives of the people in the story.

Four. The family in the somewhat autobiographical story has 12 children.

The authors of the book “Cheaper by the Dozen” had 12 children, which was not uncommon at the time of the play.

Nine children are portrayed on stage. Just as ages vary among the story’s children, so do the experience levels of the players in this case.

Five. Mr. Gilbreath, the father, has an unusual job.

He is time and motion study efficiency expert – a fussbudget.

The children who narrate discuss his expertise, such as demanding everything be ship shape when in the military and now at a manufacturing plant.

Six. The father brings his job home, which is a major factor in driving the story.

Mr. Gilbreath commands his children to focus on great grades and making full use of their every moment.

Mr. Gilbreath so propels his children that some have skipped grades in school. That’s not a common practice today.

The importance of time well spent looms large in Mr. Gilbreath’s life.

Seven. The father character is an extreme person.

You wouldn’t necessarily want to be around him because he’s more than a bit too, too much.

He makes up rules, policy and protocols for the household under the guise of being a democracy, but he is the supreme ruler whose word goes. At the same time, he calls his wife “Boss.” She (Richelle R. Hudson) kind of/sort of goes along with his expansive ambitions.

Eight. While the father is not a warm and fuzzy type, Justin Gulmire absorbs the role.

His performance brims with energy and quick reactions and explosions. Much in the story turns around the father’s creations of household duties and expectations in school and life, and Justin Guilmire details that extraordinary person as if duty bound to obey Mr. Gilbreath.

It’s a standout performance.

Nine. While the story has a passel of children in it, this is not a kids play.

It’s a family play with kid and adult elements – and a full-length running time.

The structure of the writing includes kid’s stuff and how kids behave and misbehave with siblings, but there are doses of grown-up drama.

One of the first lines by a reminiscing youth is, “Right now is the happiest time in the world” – a signal that something big and adult lies ahead.

Ten. One of the young characters develops a presence as the story continues.

At first, Anne, the eldest, is part of the shuffle, part of the activities of the siblings as they wrestle with daily life and the father. Anne is simply in the mix.

Starting with her insistence on wearing silk stockings, Anne takes on a greater role in the story. Eventually, she is in the middle of drama. Grace Heine’s portrayal rises to significant power and intensity.

It’s an interesting change – like watching someone grow up fast in front of your eyes in two hours.

Grace Heine is a product of the Young Actors program and is an example of how that pays off.

Eleven. Along with having a lot of the children, the family is well off.

The play is not about money struggles.

The family has a cook, and there are references to other hired help.

The family has plenty of challenges that go with having a lot of kids who take off in different directions all the time – and sometimes get into deep do-do like cheating – but money is not a problem for the Gilbreaths.

Twelve. While “Cheaper by the Dozen” has a certain popularity in various forms, the play jumps around as if imitating the father’s quirkiness.

Not much happens in a straight line.

In this case, because the performance takes place in the Webb Theatre with the audience on three sides of the stage, sentences in the same sequence are delivered in different directions as the player speaks to different parts of the audience.

At the same time, the play takes the audience back to how life was for some families, and family stories always have lots of lively characters.

Thirteen (a baker’s dozen). There’s an aura of comforting.

This is Evergreen Productions’ first live, in-person production since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that tipped the world. Masks are required by St. Norbert College protocol, but people are allowed to gather in the theater.

The fact that the opportunity to see this interesting play exists is comforting.

***

Creative: Dramatization by Christopher Sergel from the book by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey; director – Curt Christnot; assistant director – Madelyn Glosny; stage manager – Melisa Quaintance; set design – Warren Elliott; costume designers – Ruth Novak, Judy Patefield; hair and make-up – Jackie Ploor; lighting designer – Jack Rhyner; sound designer – Tricia Adams; master carpenter – Warren Elliott; set dresser and properties – Tess Micke; production coordinator – Melisa Quaintance

Cast:

Mr. Gilbreth – Justin Gulmire

Mrs. Gilbreth – Richelle R. Hudson

Ernestine Gilbreth – Grace Pieschek

Frank Gilbreth – Lilah Gartzke

Jackie Gilbreth – Sam Willkom

Dan Gilbreth – Michael Lamm

Bill Gilbreth – Vincent Higgins

Fred Gilbreth – Vesper Witter

Anne Gilbreth – Grace Heine

Lillian Gilbreth – Brielle Snowberry

Martha Gilbreth – Pip McGinnity Schneider

Mrs. Fitzgerald – Katelyn Valliere

Dr. Burton – Paul Goska

Joe Scales –Eli Friedman

Miss Brill – Bonnie Kirschman

Mrs. Fitzgerald – Katelyn Valliere

Larry – Jesse Cotherman

Running time: Two hours, five minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Sept. 30-Oct. 1-2 and 2 p.m. Oct. 3

Info: snc.edu/tickets/

***

NEXT: “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” by Andrew J. Fenady, Dec. 3-5, 10-12, 16-19.

THE VENUE: The 190-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee of the airline. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had many friends in the greater Green Bay community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

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