Star Power

Frantic one minute, tender the next, The Royal Family is one of the most endearing and enduring love letters ever penned

Dec 5, 2001 at 4:00 am
The Royal Family is a holiday production that has arrived for the wrong holiday. Ideally it should be seen at Valentine's Day, because this paean to the glamorous world of the theater is one of the most endearing and enduring love letters ever penned. Yet let's not be Scroogeish about the timing. Whenever you have occasion to attend a production of The Royal Family as sumptuously mounted as this one, that occasion is a holiday.

What's so special about this play, you ask? In a word: everything.

Back in 1927, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's comedy about the fictional trouping Cavendish family was inspired by the equally flamboyant Barrymore clan: John, Ethel and Lionel. But if this play were merely a spoof of a once-celebrated acting clique, there would be little need to revive it. In fact, The Royal Family is a masterful play, astonishingly well crafted. Frantic one minute, tender the next, the gears in this gorgeous antique shift as smoothly as the workings in an old grandfather clock that should have broken down years ago but instead keep better time now than when first assembled.

But let's be clear here: Although The Royal Family chronicles the travails of an acting family, this play is not about actors. It's about stars, and its most successful revivals always have been ignited by star power. The still-revered 1975 Broadway revival starred Eva Le Gallienne, Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Sam Levene. Judi Dench is now starring in a London production.

This Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production has star power, too -- only here, the stars are not seen, for they're the designers. John Ezell's opulent set for the cavernous Cavendish apartment is integral to the evening's success. This is not extravagance for extravagance's sake. Everything on this set -- even that threadbare Oriental rug under the settee -- is there for a reason. I was especially intrigued by the bust of Shakespeare that sits on the second-floor landing, from where it can observe the proceedings. At the performance I attended, the Bard seemed to have a smile on his face in act 2, a tear in his eye in act 3 -- but then, so did we all.

The costumes, by James Scott, are a marvel. Every woman's dress, every man's tie enhances our appreciation of the play. When is the last time you saw female characters revealed through the cuffs on their dressing gowns and overcoats? So many different cuffs on the same stage! Together, Ezell and Scott have achieved wonders.

As the aging matriarch of this royal family, Sally Kemp gives a luminous performance. What a richly nuanced role Fanny Cavendish is. One part grande dame, another part concerned mother, Fanny is sustained both by memories of the past and dreams for the future. She personifies the play's timeless themes: the risk of choice, the threat of change. Kemp's simple, subtle performance reminds us not of how real this play is, for nothing is real in the make-believe Cavendish world but, rather, how true The Royal Family is and of how deeply we care.

In the 74 years since the play premiered on Broadway, the rarefied world it so lovingly lampoons has ceased to exist. And yet despite that loss (or perhaps because of it), The Royal Family actually has grown in stature. For now, in addition to the laughter and the shameless sentimentality, The Royal Family also allows us to witness a once-cherished world perish before our very eyes. Under the calibrated yet affectionate direction of Susan Gregg, what begins as a frothy paean to the effervescent American theater evolves into a heartrending elegy for a theater lost.