Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The Curious Savage’ Tugs Audience’s Heartstrings in Oshkosh

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Oshkosh Community Players The Curious Savage photo2_1538143683521.jpg.jpg

“The Curious Savage” isn’t a classic play, and Oshkosh Community Players’ production has its needs, but wonderful things happen in the play and the production.

The play and the production held Thursday’s opening-night audience at the Grand Opera House in their hands, soothing and tugging hearts.

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Photo caption: Amy Molinski stars as Ethel P. Savage in the Oshkosh Community Players’ production of “The Curious Savage.” (Abs Productions photo)

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“The Curious Savage” has a surprise ending. It’s not a KABOOM thing. It is 180 degrees from that. It’s that heart thing. Very nice.

In 25 words, the story of “The Curious Savage”: Because widowed Mrs. Savage is lavishly spending her inherited millions to bring strangers happiness, her three greedy stepchildren institutionalize her with differently abled, gentle souls.

The tipoff for the time of the story is the music played prior to the performance – “The Green Door” (Frankie Vaughan), “Memories are Made of This” (Dean Martin), “Honeycomb” (Jimmie Rodgers), “The Twelfth of Never” (Johnny Mathis), “Rock Around the Clock” (Bill Haley and the Comets). It’s the 1950s. At the end, the audience leaves to “Teddy Bear” (Elvis Presley), a clever reference to Mrs. Savage’s one-eyed teddy bear, which is part of the story.

Most of what happens in the play is not locked in time. What happens could happen any time between people.

The production faithfully follows the 1950 script in reference to Mrs. Savage’s worth: $10 million. To convert that to today’s money, add a zero. She is worth a breathtaking $100 million.

The play is a comedy of a kind. Funniness often has to do with the quaint ways of the differently abled characters in The Cloisters, the place where Mrs. Savage is brought. Directors Jane Hutton and Elizabeth DelCamp and the players are careful to present the characters with kindness and warmth while balancing in humor.

The residents:

+ Fairy May (Tierney Potter), given to exaggeration (lying) and belief that she is alluring.

+ Florence (Tara Gulbrandsen), who is caring for her child (a doll) who has measles (imagined).

+ Hannibal (L. Douglas Bord-Pire), a statistical whiz whose violin playing is screaming cat gut.

+ Jeffrey (Jim Booras), who imagines a war wound (World War II) and keeps secret his performance gift.

+ Mrs. Paddy (Caroleah Demski), who says only that she hates “everything in the world,” and then rattles off lists of things she hates. Side note from Thursday’s performance: The largest reaction came at the final word of one of Mrs. Paddy’s lists, “politicians.” The reaction may be a measure of the general public’s feelings about the climate in our nation and other parts of the world.

The residents are cared for – truly cared – by Miss Wilhelmina “Willie” (Debbie Ransbottom) and Dr. Emmett (Kylie Montee).

Mrs. Savage’s stepchildren come to The Cloisters to rattle everybody with their entitlement – to demand this and that to get at “their” money that “Mother” is keeping from them. Annoying in different ways are Titus, a senator (John Rubino); Lilly Belle, a whiner (Jessica Del Camp); and Samuel, a fifth wheel (Timothy Hudson).

Everything turns around Mrs. Savage – the story, the money, the meanings in the play and presentation of character, etc. Amy Molinski finesses a fine and appealing major-role performance. Most fascinating to me is Molinski’s distinctive voice. It has a flowing, tender, comforting, young-person aura – a singing quality without really singing.

Molinski’s voice shapes her interpretation: Mrs. Savage isn’t going to let anybody push her around as she hold fast to what she believes and understands about people at their core. My words may be cosmic, but “The Curious Savage” becomes psychological, especially in its remarkable closing moments that include a great, artistic lighting/scene-setting sequence of Mrs. Savage’s idyllic vision of the residents.

The play is primarily an ensemble piece among the residents, and the players catch a rhythm as their offbeat characters come into focus. The characters/players charm as they sort of buzz around their queen bee, Mrs. Savage.

When everything comes together at the end, this is the stuff of really good community theater that bewitches (or did Thursday) the audience.   

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Creative: Playwright – John Patrick: director – Jane Hutton; co-director, stage manager – Elizabeth DelCamp; set/ lighting designer – John Rubino; costumer – Valeria Basler; props – Katie DelCamp

Cast: Mrs. Savage – Amy Molinski; Titus – John Rubino; Samuel – Timothy Hudson; Lilly Belle – Jessica DelCamp; Florence – Tara Gulbrandsen; Fairy May – Tierney Potter; Mrs. Paddy – Caroleah Demski; Jeffrey – Jim Booras; Hannibal – L. Douglas Bord-Pire; Dr. Emmett – Kylie Montee; Miss Willie – Debbie Ransbottom; John Thomas – Galileo (Leo) Demski

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27, 28; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29

Info: thegrandoshkosh.org

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NEXT: “The Tin Woman” by Sean Grennan, April 11-13.

THE VENUE: The Grand Opera House is one of Wisconsin’s showcase surviving theaters. Built for live performance well before the arrival of movies, the theater opened Aug. 9, 1883. Designed by architect William Waters, the building reflects the opulence of the era and the strength of Oshkosh at the time. Roman influences abound in columns and support elements. Ceiling and wall artistry is elaborately detailed. See grandoperahouse.org/history for details on the theater’s rich history and ongoing challenges. When you are there, wander around the building – up and down stairways and in and around nooks and crannies – and savor the details along with vintage photos and displays. For instance, in the balcony are elaborate sections everywhere. In the rear ceiling are rectangles fringed by flowers and vines. The largest rectangle includes a crossing pattern with a square at the center that’s angled like a diamond. In the front ceiling, a crossing pattern in the central square leads to a circle which depicts cherubs at play, one riding a fly. The top edge on side walls is curved, with images being a series of potted trumpet vines interspersed with maize. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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