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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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You Can't Take It With You predates the modern sitcom
Mixed nuts
on
The culture clash is perfect for comedy.
The culture clash is perfect for comedy.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

Wacky families are a TV and movie staple and have been for a long time. The theater classic You Can't Take It With You, which began its original run in 1936, is one source of that time-honored trope.

"In a lot of ways, the play's a precursor to the family sitcoms we have on TV today," says director Ron Himes. "There's a family of zany characters with one normal, sane daughter. She meets and falls in love with the boss' son. When the two families meet, you have the sort of culture clash that is perfect for comedy."

Himes, based in St. Louis, is a visiting director helming University Theatre's production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's comedy, which opens April 14 in UW Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre. The play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur a year later. At home in St. Louis, Himes is the founder and producing director of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company and artist in residence at Washington University.

In the depths of the Great Depression, You Can't Take It With You's freewheeling Sycamore clan indulge their various whims. Penny writes plays and paints, even though she's terrible at both pursuits. Her daughter Essie has studied ballet for years but is still a dreadful dancer. The other daughter, Alice, is more conventional and sometimes embarrassed by her family. Grandpa hasn't paid taxes in years.

The Kirbys are more straitlaced. "They're all about work, work, work and making money," says Himes, whereas the Sycamores "are all free spirits. Money is not really important to them as a family."

The love story of Alice Sycamore and Tony Kirby anchors the nutty plot. "It's become one of the classic American comedies," notes Himes.

The play has a large cast of 19. "It's difficult when you have to put a lot of people on stage at once, to make sure you've got interesting pictures and the relationships are clear," says Himes.

"We've got some wonderful design work from the MFA students in terms of set, costumes and lighting. The home where the play is set almost looks like a museum. There's so much stuff that's been accumulated over the years, [due to] the different family members' flights of fancy. It's very warm, lived-in and cluttered." And it's the perfect place for screwball fun to unfold.

You Can't Take It With You

Presented by University Theatre in UW Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre through April 30

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