A little motherly love at the District Festival

Mama_1I Remember MamaWho The District Festival Where  The Empire Theater, 581 State Fair Blvd. Syracuse When Through March 24 Tickets $20 per show; $50 for all three Review by Josh Austin

'I Remember Mama' is a production by Appleseed Productions and is presented as part of The District Festival, a collaborative Syracuse theater event presented by Rarely Done Productions, Appleseed Productions and The Red House. 

Let’s talk mommy issues.

It’s the subtle theme milling between the three shows at the inaugural District Festival, which opened Thursday March 7.

There’s The Full Monty, in which a group of men decide to strip to earn a dollar, and Grey Gardens, the cult-classic about a mother and daughter who seemingly will be stuck together for an agonizing eternity. (Although many could argue that Monty has nothing to do with a lack of motherly love, you could assume that on some deep-rooted level, mom had something to do with the choice of stripping.)

Needless to say, the newly-formed District—an artistically cohesive group made up of  Rarely Done Productions, Redhouse Arts Center and Appleseed Productions—have selected shows that on some level or another make you reminisce about your loving, or wretched, mommy dearest.

That’s why Appleseed’s production of I Remember Mama sits as a charming anchor for what an ideal matriarch represents: a (clichéd) sweet, caring and ever-loving mama.

John Van Druten’s affectionate play, based on Kathryn Forbes’ fictional memoir Mama’s Bank Account, doesn’t have any serious dramatic oomph. Instead, the show feels like a chapter book with mini, feel-good vignettes that comprise the coming-of-age narrative. At times you might recall Jo from Little Women, and other scenes feel a little faux-von Trapp. Though, for a play written in 1944, the lack of excitement is easily substituted for a cozy, inviting, albeit a little too long, string of comic, easy-to-follow moments. And perhaps in 1944, that’s what an audience wanted.

Although the piece may not be as exciting for today’s theatergoers, there’s obviously heartfelt, smile-inducing instants scattered throughout. The 1948 film, starring Irene Dunne as Marta “Mama” Hanson, was happily celebrated. If it opened at the box office today, I doubt it would fare so well; there’s none of that titillating stuff like sex, drugs and violence. Though, we come close with some swear words, “Damn it to hell.”

Following a Norwegian-American family in 1910 San Francisco, the action centers around the quickly growing, always-learning Katrin (played by an appealing Erin Griffin). Narrating the story throughout, Katrin wants to be a writer, a career choice that she passionately desires. However, as the play prattles on she finds that she has no inspiration.

Cue Mama.

It’s not giving much away—the title does that— that Mama (Theresa Constantine) is herself a matriarchal god that would lead to a future story. Creating new ways to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, Mama’s intent throughout is simple: Take care of the family. Constantine is utterly heartwarming as she diligently plays a frayed nerves mother who will probably triple count the little money saved all while trying to spoil her children.

The play, however, doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of Mama as the large ensemble brings in little ticks that we all dread when seeing an aunt or uncle. The ensemble roles in this work all lend to teaching Katrin—though at the moment, she’s vastly unaware. For instance, her “black-hearted” Uncle Chris (Walt Amey, though he does not give us a heartless, scary man, he’s rather that “fun uncle” that will slip you $5 when mom’s not looking) introduces Katrin to the meaning of mortality.

The show weaves these characters in and out nicely, though the pacing is nearly static. Druten wrote two great endings in the second act, but still, it goes on. That being said, I Remember Mama could use a couple more rehearsals to smooth out the kinks, glow tape the steps and firmly remember that if they can see the audience, the audience can see them.

Yet, for a show that begins to fizzle, the cast keeps it spirited and interesting. Katrin’s younger sisters, Christina (Lucy DiGenova) and Dagmar (Althea Simmons) are both lively and innocent. Though, DiGenova paints an hysterical portrait of a sassy, pessimistic, but incredibly moral younger sister, showing that even teens in the early twentieth century had attitude.

Plus, there’s an adorable live cat.

Though no one is stripping in this production, it’s a feel-good show that would make anyone remember what a mom means to them. And, the cast gives a sincere, entertaining production that really makes you want to hug your mom.