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Theater Review: Playhouse cast milks big laughs from farce

The Duluth Playhouse once again opened its new season with a farce on Thursday night, Ray Cooney’s “It Runs in the Family.” Throughout the evening, director Robert Lee’s cast demonstrated an amazing ability to milk bigger laughs than what was warranted on the printed page.

Really big laughs.

The setting is the doctor’s common room at St. Andrew’s Hospital, replete with four doors for entrances and exits, a very useful set of draperies and an accurate clock (ah, the wonders of stage magic). 

Dr. David Mortimore (Luke Moravec) is trying to memorize the very important speech he has to give to a room full of neurologists. Unfortunately, each person who walks through one of those four doors makes Dr. Mortimore’s life more complicated.

Mortimore is not exactly a sympathetic figure, and Moravec makes sure we are well aware of that fact. This makes the idea of an upcoming comeuppance for the doctor rather appealing. Especially since Mortimer was apparently vaccinated with a phonograph needle and cannot stop making things worse by saying whatever pops into his head.

In any farce, I have a special place in my heart for characters who earnestly embrace the escalating nonsense and run with it. Rosemary Mortimore (Stacy Sudoh), the doctor’s dutiful wife, tries to keep up with the proceedings, while Jane Tate (Cheryl Skafte), valiantly bursts into tears or stops crying on cue.

But it is Dr. Hubert Bonney, played with complete commitment in body and soul by Michael Pederson, who emerges as Mortimore’s primary foil as the shenanigans play out to their semi-logical conclusion. Getting the audience at a farce to burst into applause is hard to do, and Pederson pulled this off twice (he almost had the hat trick). 

I thought Mark Venhizen’s performance as the Police Sergeant was pitch-perfect. The character is somewhat handicapped by beings so low-key and professional in contrast to the rest of the crazy cast, but Venhizen totally nailed the sergeant’s big speech, earning laughs with his finely nuanced delivery.

What Peg Ferguson came up with for Cory Anderson’s entrance as Leslie is the leader in the clubhouse for favorite costume of the year. Jonathan Manchester is once again asked to play an old geezer, and Lee takes advantage of the agility advantage for some additional physical comedy.

Sara Marie Sorenson’s Matron starts off prim and proper, but you just know she will not end up that way. While the character of Dr. Mike Connolly does not have much to do as the fifth wheel to Mortimer and Bonney, Justin Peck’s glowing performance made me wish he did.

Robert Hadaway’s dapper but blustering Sir Willoughby provides a double dose of double-takes, while Cathy Berggren does double duty as a Sister and somebody’s mother.

As a British farce, there is a lot of rapid-fire dialogue and men dressed as women. There is also some serious upstaging going on in this play.

Okay, not exactly “serious” upstaging, but when I say upstaging, I mean upstaging.

If you go

What: “It Runs in the Family” by Ray Cooney

Where: The Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday until Oct. 2.

Tickets: $30 for adults, $22 for youth and students

For information: (218) 733-7555 or duluthplayhouse.org

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