You know that you're getting old when a theater company feels the need to define terms in a play that were commonplace in your youth. As radio's Chester A. Riley was prone to say of such things, "What a revoltin' development dis is!" Nonetheless, Genesius Guild's trip down nostalgia lane with playwright Norman Krasna's "Dear Ruth" is a pleasant excursion, from its authentic set to its capturing of the Zeitgeist of World War II United States life.
From the story, I estimate that the time is about 1944, and the expectation for a successful outcome of the war makes this a light, rather than a dark, comedy such as the World War I play, "What Price Glory?" The setting is the combined living/dining area of the comfortable Kew Gardens, Long Island, home of Judge Harry (Larry Hinken) and Mrs. Emily Wilkins (Kathy Splitgerber), their daughters Miriam (Michelle Coduti), and Ruth (Julie Slater Ason), and housemaid Dora (Sonia Timmerman).
"Dear Ruth" is actually a two-war story because, in addition to the global conflict of arms raging beyond the United States, there is an ongoing generational guerrilla war being waged between teens and adults, with Miriam representing the fifth column (see glossary in program) in the Wilkins household.
The extent of her subversive operations is hidden until the fateful moment when Lt. William Seawright (Tyler Grant Fitch), an American bomber crew member home on a short leave from the European Theatre of Operations, calls to meet and woo Ruth, with whom he thinks he has been romantically corresponding for months.
After Ruth has met him and while he is away making plans for their in-person courtship, Ruth claims complete ignorance, which becomes clear when Miriam confesses that she wrote, pretending to be her elder sister, in order to sustain a lonely flyer's morale.
The cast captures the essence of the characters credibly in this period piece, with Hinken's Judge recalling images of Harry Davenport, Harry Carey or Lewis Stone in similar roles, as Splitgerber's Edith evokes Anne Revere, Spring Byington or in a television equivalent Jane Wyatt.
Similarly, Coduti creates a Miriam reminiscent of a young Bonita Granville, one third brat, two thirds charmer, while Ason brings back memories of Ruth Terry in her prime. As I said, this show is a nostalgia binge for some of us.
The charming and persuasive Seawright, whom Fitch makes painfully real and immensely likeable, is moving rapidly toward a domestic conquest, which is laden with complexity because Ruth had just that day become engaged to co-worker, Albert Kummer (Kim I. Dildine). Not surprisingly, Albert isn't at all appreciative of his fiancee's sudden morale-boosting campaign but, to his patriotic credit, he helps to sustain the fantasy.
Dildine has perhaps the greatest challenge, with Albert being the bow-tied nerd that we know should not get that gal, but he makes him likeable and strong enough, in a near-wimpy sort of way, that we know he would survive should he actually lose Ruth, and would probably remain "Uncle Albert" to her kids.
Meanwhile, Seawright's fellow crew member, Sgt. Chuck Vincent (Craig Muenzer), is on the verge of romantic tragedy, because of a breakup with Seawright's sister, Martha (Melanie Wilson), who shows up to attend her brother's wedding and then must lie low to avoid running into Vincent.
Wilson portrays Martha's early discomfort effectively and is radiant when her anxieties are happily resolved.
Muenzer's Vincent is a solid character, and good comic foil when necessary.
The parents in this story are centrally peripheral, meaning they're mostly present, but primarily as amazed, amused and bewildered spectators, who wish well for their elder daughter, sedation for their younger sprout, and good things for the G.I.'s they've just met. The complex maneuvering of lovers and associated parties in the Wilkins home makes Rommel's desert war in North Africa look like a trip down I-65, but a lot funnier, as the complexities are more or less sorted out.
Set Designers Larry Hinken and Michael Jewett have chosen an unusual format for Genesius Guild's space, and used it well to create a home that is historically persuasive.
Costume Designer Charlotte Moore appears to have established a direct link via time machine to a source of early 1940's attire and, with the women's garb in particular, a stylish boutique it is.
I found it refreshing, too, that the military personnel were all clean-shaven, with neat haircuts, something one rarely sees today in attempts to recapture the era, but essential to authenticity. Director Michael Jewett has crafted a little gem in "Dear Ruth."