Conservative versus Liberal. Traditional family values versus … whatever those with “traditional” family values consider “non-traditional.” Add to this the element of two young lovers from families that don’t get along, and you have the makings for great drama. Specifically, you have the makings for You Can’t Take It With You, a classic American comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that will open Thursday, February 21, at Parkland College Theatre.
According to Parkland Theatre’s press release: “You Can’t Take It With You focuses on what happens when a family of conservatives clashes with an eccentric family of free spirits.” The three-act play, set in New York, juxtaposes the Sycamores — a family of outrageous, idiosyncratic types who live for the pursuit of happiness — with the Kirby family, whose straight-laced demeanor provides a perfect comedic foil. The offspring of these two clans fall in love, setting their families on a collision course.
You Can’t Take It With You was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937, and has been revived numerous times in numerous mediums, including television and a well-known 1938 film starring James Stewart and directed by Frank Capra.
On the Parkland stage, the directing will be done by Joi Hoffsommer, with whom I recently chatted about the upcoming production.
Smile Politely: You Can’t Take It With You has a big cast. Ninteen actors? That’s a lot to coordinate. As a director, what do you typically expect from your actors?
Joi Hoffsommer: I assume that if someone loves theatre and has chosen to give of their time and talents to a project, that they are fully invested in its artistic success. I take it for granted that they will devote themselves to the tasks of learning lines, developing character, and thinking about the play as a whole. I expect all rehearsal conflicts to be serious ones. It is a given that they come in with ideas and things to try that they have thought about from notes or discussions the night before. I am rarely disappointed. Rehearsal schedules are difficult to arrange around all of the serious demands people have these days, and time to prepare is often tight, but I have usually been justified in my faith in those who choose to do theatre for love. They come through with passion and dedication.
SP: You’ve worked in all kinds of theatre environments, from community theatre to professional. What makes the environment of Parkland College Theatre unique?
Hoffsommer: I love the unique blend of academic theatre and community theatre. It is a learning environment, as our students are on stage as actors and running the show back stage and in the booth. It is, at the same time, a place where many community members audition and perform regularly. The wide range of ages and experience levels available enriches every show and serves the students as well. The shows benefit with a reality that only comes from having mature actors play the mature roles. The students benefit by giving them access to role models and new friends outside of their student circles. There are eight Parkland students cast in this production alongside eleven community members with ages from eighteen to over seventy. It’s been a wonderful experience.
SP: This is a classic play, but sometimes the word “classic” is misread as “old.” You Can’t Take It With You debuted in 1936 and ran for over 800 performances before becoming a film, but there’s still a good chance that a lot of local theatergoers, including students, won’t know it. Surely you’re hoping to reach some new (read: young) audiences. How do you approach an older piece like this and make it resonate for today’s audience?
Hoffsommer: It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and not for nothing. It is so well-written, and it plays so beautifully as a piece of theatre that it is sure to entertain everyone, no matter what age. I have dropped a few dated references that do not play as intended for today’s audiences. Other than that, I have tried to stay true to the heart of the play, which is all heart. Love of family, love of friends, romantic love, and love of self that extends to doing what you love. The teenagers in our cast are as swept up by the themes and the story as anyone. Perhaps more so. Finding out how they want to spend their lives is at the forefront for many of them right now, and a show that explores that dilemma with laughter and love rings true.
SP: That’s outstanding. There’s a reason why classic literature and theatre get called “classic.” Just out of curiosity, do you still get nervous about opening night? Is it better or worse for you when you’re the director, as opposed to the actor?
Hoffsommer: As a director, my work is done on opening night. It is out of my hands. So it is a very different experience from opening night as an actor. As an actor, I am nervous because it is on my shoulders. I must go out and perform and bring the play to life with the other actors and director counting on me to hold up my end of things. It is a daunting task sometimes. As a director, I am nervous for the actors and for the crew. I know their burden in that moment and want the show to go well for them. If I haven’t done my job to the very best of my ability, I will have let them down. And, of course, I will have by that time spent countless days and nights preparing and rehearsing the play and want that work to fly true. There is a helplessness in that moment that is very different from an actor’s opening night nerves.
SP: Is there anything about this play that you’re especially looking forward to seeing with an audience?
Hoffsommer: With any comedy you get to that point as a director where you just hope it will be funny. After months of prep and rehearsal, what is funny gets a little old and you begin to doubt yourself. I just want to hear them laugh.
Ms. Hoffsommer’s cast includes several local actors both new to the stage and more experienced. They are: Kerry Bean, Caleb Christman, Mary Rose Cottingham, Jamey Coutant, Jesse Debolt, Marissa Embry, Chris Guyotte, David Heckman, Robert Humphrey, Monty Joyce, Justin Klett, Hannah Kline, Lincoln Machula, Nic Morse, Chad Myler, Diane Pritchard, Kenna Mae Reiss, Nick Schneider, and David Weisiger.
Performances of You Can’t Take It With You are February 21, 22, 23, and 28 at 7:30 p.m.; March 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m.; and March 3 at 3:00 p.m.
Ticket prices are $14 for adults, $12 for students and seniors (55+), $8 for Youth 12 and under, and only $10 each for groups of 15 or more. In addition, Parkland Theatre will offer two very affordable alternative ticket nights: first, there is the popular “Pay What You Can Night” on Thursday, February 21; there will also be a “Half-Price Night” on Thursday, March 1.
Reservations are strongly encouraged and can be made online or by calling (217) 251-2528.