You Can’t Take It With You, and you may not want to

By Alexandra Garfield

You Can’t Take It With You takes us back to a depression-era classic that feels all too relevant today.

The show centers around the Sycamore family who live their lives on the premise of compulsively pursuing happiness. This eccentric bunch does everything from practicing ballet while baking to making fireworks in the basement. Matriarch Penelope Vanderhof Sycamore, played by Penny Slusher, writes plays because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake.

The play’s drama arises when the least eccentric member of the family, Alice, played by Lucy Carapetyan, brings home her high-society fiancé, Tony, played by Bernie Balbot, to meet the motley family.

Although Tony is instantly accepting of the Sycamores and vice versa, Tony’s parents are not so accepting of the family’s quirks. They arrive over dressed and panic at the sight of snakes in the living room.

Though he’s not at the center of the action, the most pivotal character in the play is Martin Vanderhof, the grandfather and patriarch of the Sycamore clan.  Famously portrayed by Lionel Barrymore in the 1938 movie adaptation, taking on this role means big shoes to fill. Actor John Judd tackles the job with grace and joviality that buoys the often pedantic pace of this production.

It’s the performances of Judd and a few other key actors that save the show from slipping over the line to campy. For example, the family cook Rheba, played by Ericka Ratcliff, shows sincere reactions  whenever she’s on stage.

The show hinges on an inherent optimism and belief in the human spirit, common themes in depression-era comedies. Unfortunately, this can easily slip into stereotypes as sticky-sweet as Essie’s candies. The way the family adapts to each new twist of the plot, seemingly without concern, feels like takes from a fairy tale.

Members of the Sycamore extended family. From left to right, Penelope Sycamore, Penny Slusher; Martin Vanderhof, John Judd; Donald, Samuel Roberson; Gay Wellington, Hollis Resnik. (North light Theater/ Courtesy)
Members of the Sycamore extended family. From left to right, Penelope Sycamore, Penny Slusher; Martin Vanderhof, John Judd; Donald, Samuel Roberson; Gay Wellington, Hollis Resnik. (North light Theater/ Courtesy)

Parts of the story are inherently silly, such as the ballet-dancing, candy-making Essie played by Joanne Dubach. Since there are so many quirky people in the cast, there is also a certain amount of chaos expected. However the performance always feels carefully staged. It never achieves that sense of easy pandemonium that would mimic a real family.

Judd’s performance saves the show from slipping too far into overemotional schmaltz. His performance stands out in the best possible way. As Grandpa, he grounded the madness of the Sycamore household with an even yet playful disposition. He makes you believe in a man who would walk out on a steady job in 1902 because he “wasn’t having any fun,” and inspire others to do the same.

One morning, when I was going up in the elevator… it struck me I wasn’t having any fun. So I came right down and never went back.

-Martin Vanderhof, You Can’t Take It With You

The older actors in the show, particularly Judd, are incredible. They lift the show out of mediocrity into a thoroughly enjoyable two hours.

Through it all, playwrights George S. Kauffman and Moss Hart’s playful core still captures audiences, no matter the production era. BJ Jones, the production’s artistic director said that the show retains its emotional pull because we all yearn for what the Sycamores have.

Nearly 80 years later, said Jones, “We all wish we could write that play, paint that picture, or create those fireworks and never worry about where out next meal is coming from. A meal with loved ones who accept our peccadilloes for what they are.”

Northlight Theater’s production of You Can’t Take It With You runs through Dec. 13, 9501 Skokie Blvd., inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets: $25 to $68.

Photo at Top: Cast of You Can’t Take It With You at Northlight Theater (Northlight Theater/Courtesy)