Thursday, December 5, 2013
Although population trends may suggest they are making a bit of a comeback, we are pretty far removed from the era when large families were the norm in the United States.
Still, the image of the married couple with a ''bunch of kids'' has gained a certain idealized position in the mythology of a culture which now sputters along with a wide variety of family configurations at its core.
Set in the 1920s, the classic memoir and later movie ''Cheaper by the Dozen'' both reflected and helped to build on the myth of the large, loving family getting by on spunk and determination (with the help of a housemaid!) in an America on the move.
The Portland Players have opened a fine theater version of this comedy about the Gilbreth family and, based on Saturday's performance, it's hard to imagine how spending a couple of hours in a playhouse full of children could be any more fun.
Patriarch Frank Gilbreth is an efficiency expert who applies his business theories to his own household through highly structured family meetings and carefully charted lists of responsibilities and expectations. He even goes so far as to demonstrate, fully clothed, the most efficient way to take a bath.
As played by Joe Swenson, he's a tough dad but rarely seems tyrannical as he huffs and puffs about the stage.
Playing Frank as a bit of a well-meaning clown, Swenson was able to convey that heart of gold beneath the taskmaster's veneer.
Mother Gilbreth, played by Rebecca Kaplan, put a light but firm hold on Frank when he got a little out of order.
Her winning maternal smile let the kids know it will be all right once dad gets down from his high-concept horse.
There are nine children performers (three offstage and remarkably quiet babies make up the remainder of the dozen) and they all have moments to shine.
The younger ones mostly added an always-welcome cuteness factor while the older kids, particularly the girls, provided more of the expected but still touching teenage drama to the action of the play.
Jordan Nicole Holmes was especially effective in the role of Anne, the oldest child, who has recently discovered the wonders of dating. Her pleadings with her parents to lighten up a little were delivered with a subtle style that showed that she understood her character well.
Luke Sisselman also made the most of a few introductory dialogues he shared with Ali Schwartz.
Amelia French did well as the mischievous sister Martha, and Maria Skillings earned big laughs as the school official sent to administer some tests in the Gilbreth home.
Underplaying the melancholy ending to the play, director Stacey Koloski and her large staff and crew have put together an entertaining, upbeat take on what most would like to think are the wonders of ''super-sized'' family life.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.