Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Arlington’s American Century Theater has a hit on its hands, or at least it should.

The American classic “Life with Father” opened at Gunston Theatre 2 last week and is scheduled for an extended run through January. Check TACT’s web page for full details. (www.americancentury.org)

The American Century Theatre concentrates on presenting “important and neglected” mid-twentieth century American classics. It has staged sixty three major plays since it first “Twelve Angry Men” in 1995. Some of its previous productions include Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” William Inge’s “Picnic,” William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life,” and Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.”

The founding genius of the theater is Jack Marshall, who has been its Artistic Director and CEO to this day.

“Life With Father” still holds the record as the longest running non-musical Broadway play in history. It opened on November 8, 1939 and closed after 3,244 performances on July 12, 1947. It had a great afterlife, most notably the successful 1947 movie with William Powell, Irene Dunn, Elizabeth Taylor, Edmund Gwenn, and Zazu Pitts. Can’t do much better than that!

The story is based on Clarence Day, Jr.’s famous book of the same name based on his young life in a well-to-do upper middle class family in New York City in the late 19th Century. It is when the telephone was a new-fangled invention held in suspicion by the patriarch of the family. Transportation was by horse-drawn cab. Life was made considerably more comfortable with full-time servants.

The principal character, of course, is Clarence Day Sr., who lovingly, but sternly, runs his family with strict discipline and according to a precise schedule, or so he thinks. As the play progresses, we find that his wife and children are pretty adept at working around father, who really just imagines he is in charge.

Joe Cronin and Deborah Critzer give us wonderful performances as Clarence Day Sr. and his wife Vinnie. Clare runs the family, as he makes clear from the beginning of the play. But we soon find that Vinnie knows how to work around him so subtly that he doesn’t have a clue. Sometimes it isn’t so subtle, as when Vinnie, at the end of her rope, bursts out in tears that end immediately when Clare caves in. Following closely are Carl Bittner, who plays the Day’s 17 year-old son who is preparing to go to Harvard and Megan Graves playing the young Mary Skinner who is visiting with one of the Day’s cousins. Of course, they fall in love with charming consequences.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, together giving us a delightful evening of great theater.

“Life With Father” runs from November 25 through December 6, 2008, and picks up again from January 8 through 24, 2009. During the hiatus, TACT is presenting “An American Century Christmas,” a holiday revue “sampling a century of Christmas songs, skits, and scenes from stage, screen, radio, and television.” That sounds like a great “do not miss,” too!