What happens when a recently orphaned young man from Chicago gets sent to live with his wealthy, bohemian aunt in 1920s New York City? He quickly learns words like “nymphomaniac” and “bathtub gin” and masters the art of the martini.
The Neuse Little Theater’s next show, opening Sept. 19, is “Auntie Mame,” a play written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and based on the novel by Patrick Dennis. It’s NLT’s first show of the 2014-15 season.
After his father dies, young Patrick goes to live with his Auntie Mame, a free-spirited New Yorker with a lust for life and cocktail parties. Patrick’s father’s estate is under the control of Dwight Babcock (Reggie Parker). A traditionalist who insists Patrick be raised on conservative principles, Babcock disapproves of Mame’s laid back, partying lifestyle. The play follows Patrick and Mame’s lives, with several roadblocks along the way.
When Babcock realizes Mame didn’t enroll Patrick in the conservative, all-boys school he requested, he gets mad and intervenes, sending Patrick to the boarding school and leaving Mame devastated that she’ll only be able to see the boy on holidays. Mame loses all of her money in the Great Depression and works as an actress, telephone operator and at Macy’s to get by. Time passes until Patrick himself is married with a child.
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Director Ruth Mills said Mame follows her heart and says what’s on her mind. In a party scene, she bids a very unfiltered goodbye to a party guest who speaks only Lithuanian: “We enjoyed your conversation. Too bad no one else here spoke Lithuanian.”
With a cast of 30 representing a wide span of ages, “Auntie Mame” is a show with lots of quirky characters. Mills said she asked people to come to auditions with an idea for a well-developed party character to attend Mame’s parties.
“[Mame is] a very free and bohemian woman, long before bohemian became fashionable,” Mills said. “She’s a free thinker in 1929. She knows a lot of people and has a lot of money.”
Mills said theatergoers should come expecting a comedy with some serious dramatic overtones, or a “dramedy.”
Leanne Bernard, who plays Mame, said the show has lots of strong female characters. Mame’s best friend, Vera Charles (Theressa Rose), a Broadway actress who often passes out drunk in Mame’s guest room, provides some laughs, as does Norah the maid (Frances Stanley), a spunky woman who brings Patrick from Chicago to New York.
Bernard, who just finished a run as Anna in “The King and I” in Wilson, said she likes the challenge of playing a strong-willed woman.
“The last role I played, she was accommodating in a sweet way, whereas Mame says what’s on her mind, and I love that about her,” Bernard said. “She doesn’t take crap from anybody.”
“Auntie Mame” is the inaugural show in NLT’s 41st season. All plays this season will be classics, including Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”