Stage & Dance

'The Curious Savage': When an actress meets the perfect role

Occasionally, an actress lands a role that appears tailor-made for her. Even rarer is the audience that recognizes this synchronistic union of performer and work.

Samantha Doane-Bates' role in Woodford County Theatre's production of The Curious Savage is just such a rarity.

Bates plays Mrs. Savage, a wealthy, eccentric, aging matriarch whose spoiled, greedy stepchildren will go to any lengths to get their hands on her money, including concocting a scheme to have her committed to a sanatorium, which forms the setting for the entire action of the play.

For anyone who has seen Doane-Bates in previous roles, such as her dark portrayal of Lady Macbeth in WCT's season opener, her appearance as Mrs. Savage is a departure. With a blue-tinted wig, a peculiar, shuffling gate, and a garish turquoise get-up with matching feathered hat, Doane-Bates leaps several decades forward to play an elderly woman full of intellectual vim, incomprehensibly endearing quirks, and a deep capacity for mischief, empathy and oddly assembled wisdom.

She is one kooky old lady you don't want to mess with.

But she is also more than that, which is what vaults this production from standard community theater comedy fare to something more meaningful, something more nourishing for the audience than just requisite laughter. There is a deeper message of tenderness to be taken home, and director Beth Kirchner, with the help of a talented cast of actors and designers, ensures that the message is received.

The inhabitants of the sanatorium are a delightful mix of flaws and fears, all of which are somehow redeeming as they are damning. Sarah Tackett is insatiable cuteness as the young, tender-hearted Fairy May, a constant liar whose inventive untruths are excused because of their grandiose creativity.

In her first appearance on the stage, Cappy Tossetti — as Mrs. Paddy, a habitually grumpy woman who never speaks except to demonstrate her soaring capacity for hating on random things — marks a promising debut, and what's more, is a fine example of the ability to make a large splash with a relatively small role.

Sharon Sikorski is tender and genteel as Florence, a mother who clings to a ventriloquist's doll as a psychological replacement for her deceased son.

The sanatorium inhabitants are rounded out by two men with opposing quirks: Hannibal (Chris Williams), the consummate statistician and a tone deaf but spirited violin player, and Jeffrey (Timothy Hull), a concert pianist and war veteran who symbolically carries the wounds of war by pretending, even believing, that his face is permanently scarred.

As villains, stepchildren Titus, Samuel and Lily Belle (Matt Seckman, Jacob Karnes and Kimberly Burris) are slimy, despicable characters; their money-driven antics make them appear more legitimately crazy than the sanitorium's host of colorful patients. They work in greed, bribe, coercion and fear, all of which prove to be the antithesis of love, leading them to their own comical destruction and showing the audience that the integrity of love, even amongst the so-called unstable, is more valuable than $10 million worth of bonds.

Particularly impressive is this ensemble's work with consistent personal quirks and typified movement. Like Doane-Bates' character, each of the supporting cast delivers tight, well-developed, layered performances that inspire moments of tender empathies that seem to sneak up on you from nowhere.

No doubt there have been many other productions of The Curious Savage in which the lead role was largely a surface farce, but Kirchner's vision of the same play is stealthily layered with nuance and a wry but sincere respect for the emotionally sensitive, semi-broken folks whose capacity for love, innovative notions of acceptance and enduring flaws calls us to embrace those very qualities within ourselves, wherever they might lie.

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