Eric Peterson becomes the grandpa we all wish we had in Soulpepper's You Can't Take It With You.
The 2010s have Modern Family, just as the 1990s had Full House and Family Matters. All of those TV shows are comedies that celebrate the quirks and unbreakable bonds within families.
In 1937, meanwhile, there was Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, You Can’t Take It With You.
The institution of the family has transformed greatly over the years, which makes Joseph Ziegler’s new production of You Can’t Take it With You, for Soulpepper, a little risky. The 1930s were steeped in tradition and formalities. Male suitors had to arrive at a woman’s home to “call on her.” Social class mattered to a couple as much as romantic chemistry or compatibility. The patriarch of the family had the final say on the family’s affairs.
But Hart and Kaufman’s Sycamore household was a groundbreaking one. Paul (Derek Boyes), the father, tinkers with fireworks in the basement with his friend Mr. De Pinna (Michael Simpson), while his wife, Penny (Nancy Palk), types up half-finished plays according to various themes (the “War” play, the “Sex” play, and so on). Their daughter Essie (Patricia Fagan) pirouettes throughout the house between baking batches of candy, as her husband, Ed (Mike Ross), accompanies her on the xylophone. Grandpa (Eric Peterson) quit his job suddenly 35 years ago, and he now spends his time attending commencement ceremonies, caring for pet snakes, and ignoring letters from the IRS. Alice (Krystin Pellerin) is the “normal” one—that is, the only one with a day job, and consequently, the only one who knows that her family is more than a bit different than most. This wasn’t a problem for her until she fell in love with Tony (Gregory Prest), the heir to the wealthy Kirby family business. Now it’s time for his well-to-do parents (Jon Jarvis and Brenda Robins) to meet her unconventional clan. Fireworks literally ensue.
Some aspects of the Sycamores seem anachronistic. For instance, their cheerful black servants (Sabryn Rock and Andre Sills), their income-free lifestyle, their patriarchal Grandpa doling out words of wisdom to family members and government employees, and their amused nonchalance toward a friend’s drinking problem.
But Soulpepper’s production corrects for this by letting Eric Peterson, as the sneaker-wearing Grandpa, take centre stage. His “carpe diem” perspective on life is one of the more progressive aspects of the show. Maybe it’s the 20-something, newly graduated perspective from which we’re coming , but it seems to us that modern audiences can get behind a mindset like that. Hearing Peterson—a veteran of the stage—deliver his lines with such glee was music to our ears. He’s downright sprightly as Grandpa, and clearly relishes the opportunity to play a character that mirrors himself—a man whose days are directed by his passions.
Performances by the others are similarly lovable—specifically, Palk as the free-spirited Mother Sycamore, and Pellerin and Prest as the young and flirty couple that’s sweet-but-not-too-sweet. Prest and Palk are particularly remarkable: the last time we saw them on Soulpepper’s stage was in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a family saga that is all tears and trauma.
Despite the mustiness of some of its tropes, You Can’t Take It With You is funny. Sometimes it’s funny like when your grandmother uses racist slang in her everyday speech, but often it’s funny because the Sycamores are a breath of fresh air. If this Soulpepper cast keeps up their energy, this 1930s classic will have a place in Toronto theatre seasons for years to come.
We originally wrote that Prest and Palk’s last Soulpepper production was Eugene O’Neill’s The Distance From Here. In fact, they last appeared in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.