Review / The warm glow of humanity and nostalgia

‘I Remember Mama’ once again reveals the talent of Islesburgh Drama Group

The large family table in the Hansen's dining room was at the centre of the play. All photos: Austin Taylor

MEMOIRIST Kathryn Forbes was best known for Mama’s Bank Account, an allegedly charming piece of fiction that inspired screen and theatre adaptations under the title I Remember Mama.

It was with this tale, adapted by John Van Druten, Islesburgh Drama Group ventured for three nights at the Garrison Theatre last week.

Zoe Spence who played the story’s main narrator – Katrin – sparkled in bringing her character to life.

Produced and directed by Morag Mouat, I Remember Mama follows the life and times of the Hansens, a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the early part of the  20th century.

It was because of this that the play was not so much about high drama, big laughs or nail biting tension. Rather it was about the ordinary lives and times of ordinary people. Probably in many ways much like you and me.

The show was, however, surely stolen by Zoe Spence who played the story’s main narrator – Katrin.  An aspiring writer, Katrin recounts the endeavours of her Mama (Stephenie Pagulayan) and Papa (Cameron Mackenzie) to raise their four children in frugal times. At every turn, Spence sparkled in bringing her character to life. With remarkable stage presence, she was earnest and heartfelt in presenting a compelling picture of her large – often amusing – Norwegian family.

Mama herself was presented as a kind, sensible character who was widely liked by the other characters, even when they did not seem to get on too well between themselves. Money savvy, shrewd and caring, Pagulayan brought a warm sincerity to the titular character.

One of the complexities of a play such as this is presented through the need for a variety of distinct accents: the generation of Norwegian family who had been born and raised in what they referred to as “the old country” and then the children – the new generation born on American soil. This is no mean feat and while there were the occasional slips here and there, the cast did well to keep their characters reminiscent of their origins.

Much of the light humour was provided by the wider circle of family. The three aunts (Joyce Williamson, Morag Maver and Donna-Marie Leask) made brilliant, intermittent appearances with their big personalities and strong opinions.

Mama (Stephenie Pagulayan) herself was presented as a kind, sensible character who was widely liked by the other characters, here with aunt Trina (Donna-Marie Leask).

Then there was Uncle Chris played by Andy Long, gruff and unfriendly on the surface but, as it turned out after his death, something of a philanthropist who had used his money to help others.

Although the play takes place in multiple locations, a cleverly designed set allowed for the movement between them to be clear. Centre stage for most of the play were the living quarters of the Hansen family.

Deliberately thrifty to reflect the harder economic times for the characters, a large family table dominated the space. Doors in different directions allowed characters to leave to the “outside” or inner rooms of the house – the only drawback being that when the characters left the stage, their exits were still visible.

The three aunts (Joyce Williamson, Morag Maver and Donna-Marie Leask) made brilliant, intermittent appearances with their big personalities and strong opinions.

However, a cleared space forward of the Hansen’s dining room allowed for smooth transitions between scenes with simple, stylised set pieces and dialogue to secure the location of the action that ensued. The lighting also enabled areas of the stage to be lit and shrouded in darkness to create soft focus on key moments of action and dialogue.

I Remember Mama is not a play where very much, in itself, seems to happen.  At the end of the first act I was not altogether sure what purpose Van Druten saw it as having when he wrote it for the stage.

But therein lay the magic of it. Some theatre can just reflect real life, real humanity, real families. Maybe for many of us, our days are not fast and exciting, or riven with high drama. But we can all relate to the warm glow of nostalgia, gregarious and difficult family members, and characters in our lives who leave the small impressions that matter the most.

I Remember Mama once again reveals the talent of Islesburgh Drama Group; from direction to production to acting to staging in delivering high quality amateur dramatics audiences love.

Helen Kerr