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THEATER REVIEW You Can't Take It With You
by James R. Wilke
2018-06-27


Playwright: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

At: Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. Tickets: OakParkFestival.com; $32. Runs through: July 22

A collection of dream-chasing free spirits, some related by blood and others merely by the bonds of friendship, gather in one communal house to face the realities of an economically challenging United States together.

No, this isn't the millennials next door; it's the cast of Oak Park Festival Theatre's You Can't Take It With You—a play so topically modern, it's hard to believe this Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway comedy-turned-Academy Award-winning Best Picture was written in 1936! With themes like accepting others' quirks and accepting your own, mistrust in governments and Wall Street, and not letting a job and money take precedence over your relationships, dreams and health, the messages in You Can't Take It With You feel as relevant in today's post-Great Recession era as they were at the height of the Great Depression when it was written.

The story takes place in a madcap home shared by three generations of the artsy, whimsical Sycamore family, along with a host of unique friends. The drama pivots on the engagement of two young lovers, Alice and Tony, sweetly played by Tyler Meredith and Debo Balogun. While Alice struggles with shame, coming from a financially-strapped family of eccentics, Tony struggles with the expectations and prejudices of his wealthy parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, exquisitely rendered by Charls Sedgwick Hall and Jeri Marshall. Refreshingly, director Jason Gerace has cast the young lovers as inter-racial, with Alice and the Sycamores as Caucasian while Tony and the Kirbys of Wall Street are African- American.

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While the entire cast pulses with outlandish vigor, other standout performances include Jerry Bloom as Mr. Henderson, a believable strong arm of government come to punish the Sycamore family for tax evasion and rebellious leanings. Also notable, actor Jack Hickey brings a heart-warming presence as Martin "Grandpa" Vanderhof, endearing the audience with his sage wisdom about work-life balance. And actress Eleanor "Eli" Katz as the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina exudes such a zest for living that one feels uplifted as her jovial presence transcends her predicament, having been displaced from a life of luxury in Russia to wait tables in a New York restaurant.

All this is made even more enjoyable as the play is presented outdoors at the intimate, lush Austin Gardens, in the heart of downtown Oak Park. Hence, one can enjoy both the show and lovely summer weather in outdoor chairs or bring a blanket and picnic. With such a romantic setting, it is easy to see why Oak Park Festival Theatre, founded in 1975, is the Midwest's oldest professional live outdoor theater.

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