THEATRE REVIEW: “George Washington Slept Here”

Jacksonville’s Bolles School presented a three-performance run of the 1947 comedy “George Washington Slept Here,” on November 20, 21, 22, 2014 at the McGhee Auditorium on its Southside campus.

This was our third trip to Bolles to review a play. We first discovered the directing talents of Laura Ripple, Theatre Director at Bolles, in 2012, when she spent her summer vacation making her debut at Theatre Jacksonville, where she directed a modern adaptation of the comedy/farce “Is He Dead” by Mark Twain.

One of Ripple’s favorite playwright teams is that of George Kaufman and Moss Hart, who penned “George Washington Slept Here” in 1940. We had previously seen “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” another of their plays at Bolles. Ms. Ripple obviously loves retro-comedy and we expect more in upcoming seasons, as Kaufman and Hart turned out eight smash hits during their collaboration from 1930 to 1940.

“George” is probably best known for the movie based on the play, which starred Jack Benny, Ann Sheridan, and Hattie McDaniel. This classic black and white film shows up on cable from time to time and may be available at libraries.

The story is that of Newton Fuller (in an excellent performance by William Jennings), a New York executive who has a sudden urge to live in the peaceful Pennsylvania countryside and commute to the city. He buys a country home based on the advice of a disreputable real estate agent that is two-hundred years old, mainly because our first President reportedly slept here. His ill-advised purchase turns out to be a decrepit farm house, and Newton’s wife Annabelle, played by Kaitlyn Bonfield, uses great facial gestures to portray her dismay at the prospect of living there.

As the couple enters the dilapidated boarded-up house accompanied by their grown daughter Madge (Woody Moore) and her boyfriend Steve (Ian McCutcheon), it does not take them long to figure out what amenities are missing. The well has run dry, so they are without water; there is no cesspool, no bathrooms, no closets, no heat. The road leading to the place is owned by Mr. Prescott (Travis Johns), a disagreeable neighbor, who won’t allow them to use it, so their only access is through the woods.

They do have many trees, with all kinds of diseases that need extended treatments, a roof that leaks, and a cow that does not give milk. They also have a hired farmhand who came with the house, the deadpan Mr. Kimber (Cooper Sorfleet), who is constantly asking Newton for money for supplies and repairs.

The Newton’s have several visitors during the early months of occupancy, while they are trying to make the place livable. A couple of actors from a local summer stock theatre Clayton (Spencer Sorfleet) and Rena (Madison Meyer) drop by. Also, four of daughter Madge’s friends come for an impromptu party. There for only a short time, they were played by Connor Warmuth, Austin Jackson, Isy Milne, and Lillie Brody.

One of the funniest characters is teenager Raymond (Gabriel Bassin), a devious nephew referred to as “Huckleberry Capone” and there because his divorcing parents don’t know what to do with him. In the humor department, Newton’s Uncle Stanley (Sandro Bevilaqua) also garnered lots of laughs. His family caters to his every whim, because they think he is wealthy. He is elderly and demanding, although he dresses well and can be gracious at times. And he is also a con man, who lost his entire fortune a number of years ago.

This play had a curiously written character, Katie, (Kelsey Cutlery) their cook in Act I, who makes a brief entrance, says a few words and then just disappears. Hester is the new cook and maid who is having problems with her love life and was very animatedly played by Zahin Ibnat.

Things looked bleak for the Fuller family at the beginning of Act III. Newton has run out money and the neighbor has asked the bank to foreclose so he can buy the farm. This prompts one of the wildest wacky scenes in the show. Unable to come up with the money, and having learned that Uncle Stanley has no money to give them, they turn to drinking in the middle of the morning, with everyone having with their own bottle of liquor. Since they are losing their property, they decide to return their house to its original condition, and gleefully begin to empty garbage cans, cut pillows open and spread feathers, and cover the floor with gravel. Yes, it was a mess.

The future becomes brighter when a friendly neighbor, Mrs. Douglas (Lilly Bateh), finds an old map showing that the Fuller’s property actually is much larger than they thought, and the boundaries include the road that the hard-nosed neighbor Prescott had insisted was his. And Uncle Stanley saves the day, using his charm to negotiate a deal with Prescott that solves Newton’s financial problems.

Side note: If you travel around the Eastern Seaboard from Maryland to New England, you will encounter a number of pubs, inns and homes with a sign indicating that Washington slept there. Washington traveled extensively, and slept in many places. However, it turns out that Newton’s house wasn’t one of those places.

Art and Special Effect Director Herman McEachin’s set design captured the character of an old run-down house, and its transformation to a comfortable interior. Sound effects were important to the plot and were excellent, from the rain to well-drilling to cows and trains. The Stage Manager was Ria Joglekar, with costumes by Tracy’s Originals.

This play was an excellent performance choice, with a number of small roles, giving students new to the stage the opportunity to enter the wonderful world of acting and theatre. Ms. Bonfield and Mr. Jennings in the demanding leading roles gave very polished performances, and the entire cast performed well together.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.