Watching a memory play like John Van Druten's I Remember Mama feels like looking through someone else's family album. You nod and smile without feeling a real connection to the people in the pictures.
Fortunately, Transport Group Theatre Company has added interest to Van Druten's somewhat dated play about an immigrant Norwegian family by casting 10 female Broadway veterans in the roles of the play's two dozen characters — men and children included. The troupe also wisely chose as its venue The Gym at Judson, whose stage suits the wide expanses of memory.
Van Druten based his play on Kathyn Forbes' 1943 memoir Mama's Bank Account. Katrin Hanson (Barbara Barrie) is an aspiring writer attempting to record the story of her family of Norwegian immigrants who moved to San Francisco at the beginning of the 1900s. She relates the Hansons' trials and tribulations in episodic scenes whose common thread is the sacrifice and love that binds this family together.
Headed by Papa (Dale Soules) and Mama (Barbara Andres), the Hanson household struggles with paying the bills and rarely has anything left over for nonessentials, like a high school education for son Nels (Heather MacRae). The family's tenant, Mr. Hyde (Lynn Cohen), reads his novels to the family, including daughters Dagmar (Phyllis Somerville) and Christine (Louise Sorel), rather than paying his rent. Mama's sisters Jenny (Alice Cannon) and Sigrid (Susan Lehman) can't help putting in their two cents when sister Trina (Rita Gardner) wants to marry a funeral director. Among a dozen or so other mini plots, we see Dagmar's cat, Uncle Elizabeth, grow deathly ill then miraculously revive after Mama tries to euthanize it.
The production's set, designed by Dane Laffrey, is especially apt for a story about these kinds of family memories. Ten tables arranged throughout The Gym at Judson's large stage are surrounded by matching chairs, and on these tables lie the objects of Katrin's recollections: faded photographs, old letters, books of literature, silverware, wineglasses, curio boxes, handkerchiefs, cookbooks, coffee cups, and typewriters. It is an inspired, visually arresting set for a play that looks back on the past, and it allows the actresses to glide easily from one scene to the next as if in a dream.
It's a shame, though, in I Remember Mama, that there's no central conflict or main character for the audience to latch onto for an extended length of time. What Van Druten gives us is a series of vignettes — such as Dagmar's own illness and recovery, Katrin's publication of her first story, Mama's sale of a precious broach — all of whose small crises are resolved and put away in their own little curio box one by one. For nearly two and a half hours, there's an abundance of sentiment but little substance.
Yet seeing these marvelous theatrical legends together on one stage is enough of a reason to revisit this classic. Cohen, who also plays the cantankerous Uncle Chris, is one of the production's highlights. As far as the play itself goes, I Remember Mama has the charming appeal of someone else's faded family photographs — pleasant to look at but too distant to excite.