By Annette Hinkle
For its upcoming fall play, the Pierson High School theater department is reaching back to a classic — way back.
“You Can’t Take it With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart premiered on Broadway in 1936. The play showed up on the scene smack dab between the Great Depression and the Second World War, and for a nation that had seen its share of trouble, it provided great comic relief to a weary nation.
It also set priorities straight.
The play, which is set in New York and pits the wealthy, straight-laced Kirby family against the poor, but creatively happy Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael clan, won a Pulitzer in 1937, and in 1949, two Academy Awards went to the film version.
Pierson senior Hope Brindle plays Penelope Sycamore, the free-spirit matriarch of her expressive and eccentric family, which includes her father, Martin Vanderhof (Graham DiLorenzo), her husband Paul Sycamore (Lauren McClean), daughter Essie (Lola Lama) and her husband, Ed Carmichael (Eva Doyle), and younger unmarried daughter Alice (Reilly Rose Schombs).
Eccentricities and creative passions run deep in this family. Penelope is a playwright — or at least she’s trying to be. It’s a skill she began working on after a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the family’s New York City residence. Meanwhile, Paul makes fireworks in the basement, while daughter Essie is building her candy business with the help of her xylophone playing husband. Essie also fancies herself a marvelous ballet dancer (she’s not) and takes every opportunity to show off her talent in the living room.
Enter sister Alice — the comparatively normal one of the bunch. When she comes home to announce she is dating the well-connected Tony Kirby (Zebulun Kinney), she is nervous about how her odd-ball relatives and their various creative passions will be received by Tony’s wealthy parents when they come to dinner to meet her family.
“There’s a lot of energy in the script. It’s relatable,” said Pierson art teacher and play producer Elizabeth Marchisella. “It’s kind of your stereotypical ‘one side of the family is crazy the other side is not’ story. But then you find the other side is crazy too.
“I think people in the audience will be saying, ‘That’s my uncle,’” she added.
Though there is some old-fashioned language in “You Can’t Take it With You,” the play’s theme of money isn’t everything is as relevant today as it was in the ‘30s and it comes through loud and clear.
“When students are around the glitz and glamour out here, it’s not the meaning of life,” said Marchisella. “Hopefully, when they come to see this play, they’ll get the message.”
The play also explores the idea of following ones dreams — even those that aren’t entirely practical.
“The message is timeless. It’s about the universality of what are you going to pursue in life?” added English teacher Keith Holden, who directs the play. “At this age, the students are starting to think about college and what comes next. It’s important to think about this.”
In the role of Penelope, Hope is finding a kindred spirit and a familial thread. Ironically, Hope’s own mother was in “You Can’t Take it With You” during her senior year at Westhampton Beach High School.
“My character is the mom, and she really enjoys doing her own thing,” explained Hope who added that she and Penelope have a lot in common. “She likes to write and I’m going to college for writing, hopefully. I’ve also become a mom to all of my friends.”
“Penelope has taught me. I have insecurity in my own writing, but Penny just writes even though her plays are bad,” she said. “She doesn’t worry about being technically good. That gives me courage to write myself.”
As Tony Kirby, Alice’s love interest, fellow senior Zebulun Kinney finds his character eager to break away from the expected professional path, which he finds liberating in his own life as well.
“Tony is not happy. He works on Wall Street. My character is forced into the business, but when I meet Alice Sycamore and get a glimpse of what happens when you follow your dream, that’s where I’m taking it,” said Zebulun. “He’s becoming more a Sycamore than a Kirby. He tells Alice that as long as they’re together, it’s fine.
“I think it’s a beautiful message for everyone.”
Since Pierson is a small school, casting plays can be challenging and for this production, some girls are taking on male roles — hopefully to hilarious effect. This time around there have also been casting decisions to mix up the type of characters that some students play — in particular, sophomore Lola Lama and junior Reilly Rose Schombs who portray Essie, the crazy free-wheeling sister, and the more subdued sister Alice, respectively.
“This is a new challenge. Usually I play the younger, more serious adult or the young fiancée,” explained Lola. “This is new to me because of the comedy and I’m playing the older sister. But I think it’s taking me out of my comfort zone in a good way. I’m learning new things I’ve never thought about before.”
Conversely, Reilly Rose is coming to terms with exploring new terrain as the serious young woman who brings home the beau to meet the parents.
“I’m not used to playing the romantic character,” admitted Reilly Rose. “I think it’s a healthy challenge. It’s not method acting for me, since I haven’t had that in my own life.”
Being asked to portray a young girl in the midst of a romantic relationship may be unfamiliar territory for Reilly Rose, but she sees the role of Alice as one that will further her range of emotion as an actor.
“Playing a character in the midst of things I haven’t yet experienced is a little uncomfortable, but I’m trying to find things within the character I can connect to so it stays grounded in that sense while I’m working on it,” she added. “I’ve never had this experience so I’m excited to explore that. I think it has been a little difficult but a healthy challenge.”
But Reilly Rose, who in the past has always been cast in comic roles, is embracing the more dramatic territory she is exploring now. She added that she was planning to audition for Juliet in the upcoming Guild Hall production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I feel like I’ve come so far as an actor and in my personal life as well,” she said.
Marchisella added that when Reilly Rose auditioned for “You Can’t Take it With You,” she came prepared with a piece that was definitely much different from any role she had seen her in before. Both Marchisella and Holden were convinced that mixing up the expected casting for Lola and Reilly Rose was the way to go in that it would provide both young actresses, who are serious about pursuing acting at the college level, with an opportunity to expand their repertoire.
“I felt that when I picked my monologue, I knew I would be out of my comfort zone,” said Reilly Rose.
But when you’re doing a play like “You Can’t Take it With You” which is all about pursuing your passion, no matter the cost, how can any young actor not take a chance?
Pierson High School’s production of Kaufman and Hart’s “You Can’t Take it With You” runs Thursday through Saturday, November 16 to 18 in the school auditorium. Shows on Thursday and Friday are at 7 p.m., Saturday’s shows are at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, call the school at (631) 725-5302.