The Curious Savage by John Patrick
Performance length: about 2 and ½ hrs. with an intermission
SET DESIGN: Easy
COSTUME DESIGN: Easy
CAST POTENTIAL: The Curious Savage is the prototypical character-driven play. Each character is wildly unique and dynamic, each given an opportunity to shine.
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CROWD REACTION: This play has found huge success in a variety of different markets, both commercial and in the community. It’s a funny and docile One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with an old comedy flair that appeals to a wide audience.
SUMMARY: Because Ethel P. Savage has turned philanthropist after her husband’s death, her greedy step-children throw her into a sanatorium affectionately known as the Cloisters. Angered by her willingness to waste their inheritance on the poor, the Savages demand that Ethel turn over her fortune to them, which she has hidden from them in some undisclosed place.
During her stay at the Cloisters, Ethel acquaints herself and eventually falls in love with the other residents: Florence, who believes the doll she carries is her five-year-old son, Hannibal, a brilliant statistician who wrongly thinks he is a master violinist, Jeff, who hides a massive scar on his face (which isn’t really there), Fairy May, a flighty, homely girl who thinks she is extravagantly beautiful, and Mrs. Paddy, a woman who has taken a vow of silence, only speaking when she lists the things she hates.
CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: The cast size is fairly large (5M, 6W), and while there are “smaller” roles, each character is part of an ensemble that shares the stage equally. Written over 50 years ago, many of the parts appear caricatured on the page, whether it be the overly-greedy, ostentatiously evil Savages or the overly-silly, but downright charming residents at the Cloisters. A cast has the challenge of imbuing these characters with sufficient depth to insure the comedy is neither forced nor false.
SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: Many references in the play speak to the age in which it was written (early 1950s), therefore it is wise to perform this play as a period piece. The Cloisters is a rather secluded world, perhaps not with the times, and may reflect a period even more remote than the 1950s. Much like the residents inside, it should be lavishly decorated, but have an old, neglected feel.
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: In the script, John Patrick notes that these characters should be played with “warmth and dignity.” That any attempt to exaggerate the roles “would rob them of charm and humor.” The quality of any production of The Curious Savage hinges on this quality. The cast must find the balance between the humor behind the oddball foibles of their characters without resorting to mockery. The audience must believe that these characters are wounded and fragile and that their idiosyncrasies are inspired by the mad, mad world outside of the Cloisters. So while the afflictions may seem overly-gimmicky (Hannibal’s bad violin plainly, for one), acknowledge that these gimmicks are metaphors for real madness. Unlike Cuckoo’s Nest, which takes a vicious and gritty look inside a mental asylum, it’s in the innocuous and humorous tone of Patrick’s play that we are able to confront issues of insanity with grace.