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Theater review: At the 2nd Space Theatre, ‘Mama’ knows best when it comes to the importance of the immigrant experience

Good Company’s sweetly nostalgic “I Remember Mama” is from a different time, and I think that’s a good thing. One of the things theater can do is coax us back into the past – and then ask us to reflect.

Pictured above: The Hanson family in ‘I Remember Mama’ is played by Jessica Rose Knotts, left, Benjamin Geddert, Madeline Wristen, Eric Bako, Kate McKnight and Gracelyn Borzini. Photo: Good Company Players / Erik Olivera

As an audience member, is there a certain amount of judgment involved when a newer generation looks back at the lives of older ones? Of course. Compared to those who came before us, we like to think of ourselves as more advanced, wiser, and aware of social ills and injustice. We can be a bit smug, in fact, as we look back and sigh at the ways things used to be.

But an outing like “Mama,” which plays at the 2nd Space Theatre through June 19, can also remind us of some of the things we’ve lost. The action is set in the 1910s. (The book on which the play is based was written in 1943.) A tight-knit immigrant family, in this case from Norway, has settled in the U.S., and faces adversity. Life isn’t perfect. There are hardships: putting food on the table, dealing with labor strife, scraping together enough money for medicine. And there are complications, particularly with the youngest, most Americanized members of the family: fitting in with the dominant culture, squabbles between siblings, wanting more freedom than their familial bonds seem to allow.


Related story: JESSICA ROSE KNOTTS FINDS HER INNER NORWEGIAN — AND MUCH MORE — IN THE GOOD COMPANY PLAYERS PRODUCTION OF ‘I REMEMBER MAMA’

However, the Hanson family pulls together as a unit. The parents are paragons of support and steadiness. The kids are, deep down, good-hearted and kind, and they’re hella excited about listening to someone read “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” to them after dinner instead of slinking off to play video games. The extended clan of aunts and one larger-than-life great uncle – while on the eccentric side and providing some scrappy comic tension – ultimately reflect the fact that family role models do matter.

Director Karan Johnson obviously has great affection for this material; she treats it seriously and worthy of our admiration. She cast a wonderful Mama: Kate McKnight, as the hard-working Marta, quiet yet fierce, who ranges from gentle saint to persnickety mama bear. Eric Bako, as her steadfast husband, Lars, mostly defers to the affable whirlwind that is his wife, but he, too, stands strong when it comes to matters of family, and he’s obviously an equal partner in this marriage. Jessica Rose Knotts, as the oldest daughter (and narrator), Katrin, brings a crisp, period-piece authenticity to her character. Katrin chafes at some of her mother’s restrictions and is quick to succumb to the siren call of American materialism, but she’s also mature enough as a high school student to know the importance of family.

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The most interesting character in the show, however, is Uncle Chris (Noel Adams, in a sturdy, affecting performance), the de facto patriarch of the family. He comes across as a gruff, alcoholic meanie, but there’s a lot more there than you first suspect. Uprooting yourself from one country and culture to another is hard for anyone, but for fully mature adults who are already steeped in a way of life, it must be even harder. In a sense, Uncle Chris sacrificed his potentially prime years in his old culture for the sake of younger generations. There’s something tender and touching about that.

Edgar Olivera

Other standouts in the large cast include Jayne Day in a small but feisty role as a successful woman’s author, Madeline Wristen as the sometimes persnickety middle daughter, and Sandra Montelongo as the fussy Aunt Jenny, who strides into a room with the briskness of an advance Secret Service agent.

As for the play itself: It feels old-fashioned, and it’s on the long side. But, as I stated previously, that can be OK. John Van Duren’s script (adapted from Kathryn Forbes’ book “Mama’s Bank Account”) is episodic in nature, with a shenanigan or two thrown in, along with some more lingering worries about money, plus a narrative involving Uncle Chris building to a climax. For modern audiences, it might be helpful to think of the format almost in streaming terms: Instead of a feature film, it’s like you’re binge-watching the first three episodes of a period series.


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There will be some, I am sure, who will chafe at the sometimes meandering narrative and the utter absence of arch humor and cynicism in “I Remember Mama.” Again, a few hours immersed in the past might be a good fit. Please know: I don’t praise the wholesomeness of the show because I want to proclaim a good-old-days, family-values message here. I know that a lot of things were not right in 1915. (Just as a lot of things are not right in 2022.) And assimilating into American society can be a notably different experience for people of Nordic descent compared to people of color.

But perhaps we can take away more from that era than we’d like to think. Perhaps families today can strive to be every bit as loving and supportive as the Hansons are while still embracing such modern ideals as gender and racial equality. Perhaps people today can reflect on what it means to welcome immigrants to this country and how they ultimately make it stronger. Perhaps we can all sit around the table after dinner sometime and listen to an excerpt of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”

Hey, we can all (American) dream.


Show info

“I Remember Mama,” a Good Company Players production at 2nd Space Theatre. Continues through June 19. Tickets are $25 general, $22 students and seniors.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Steph

    Is GOOD!

    reply
    • Steph

      Okay, I’ll do better than to just say Is Good.

      Because is actually very very good.

      I told my co-viewer that I knew the show from my youth and to get ready for “a slog.”

      It wasn’t a slog. The length didn’t bother me at all. The acting was so crisp and well done!

      Kate’s accent might not have been all there, but her acting was – she was born to this role and plays it perfectly. Jessica Rose is quite good, I agree with your notable other performances, and Uncle Chris was also played to a T. Jayne Day filled the space with her personality and voice and I only wish she’d been onstage longer.

      A side note: I’m aware of who a few of these actors are and what they do. For them to teach all day and for Kate to direct her own show while also giving justice to the demands of this production is stunning.

      And yes, Aunt Jennty was a hoot, Aunt Sigrid good, and I really also enjoyed Aunt Trina’s performance. She played the juxtaposition between cool aunt, subservient sister, and dutiful fiancé (tho he looked a good 50 years older than she, the actress played her love for Mr T quite nicely).

      It’s a fantastic job by all, and I’m so glad I saw it!

      reply

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