The Syzygy Theatre Group joins in the International Centennial Celebration of William Saroyan with an captivating production of one of the Armenian-American writer’s lesser known works, 1940’s Love’s Old Sweet Song. Like Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, Love’s Old Sweet song is both sentimental and idealistic, and all the more wonderful for being so. Like the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, it involves mistaken identities, culture clashes between haves and have-nots, some fast-talking, witty repartee, and ridiculous, farcical situations. It is this blend of the screwball and the sentimental that makes Love’s Old Sweet Song such a magical piece of theater.

The play takes place in 1939 Bakersfield, at the end of the Great Depression and the advent of World War II, and unfolds in real time, in the late morning and afternoon of a September day, outside Ann Hamilton’s house at 333 Orchard Avenue, and later inside a neighboring Greek American family’s parlor. 

Ann Hamilton is a beautiful small-town woman, still single at 44, and enamored of romance magazines. Ann’s life turns upside-down and inside-out when Georgie Americanos, a young telegraph messenger, arrives with a telegram from a man named Barnaby Gaul.  Since Gaul has had the gall to send the telegram collect, Ann refuses to pay the $1.80 until Georgie gives her some idea of what the telegram says. Fortunately, the young Greek-American is not only eager to fill her in on its contents, he’s actually memorized the whole thing and will gladly recite it to her. “Free,” he explains. “That’s my little gift to society. People are poor. A dollar and eighty cents is a lot of money.”

Gaul writes, “If you remember me, I am the young man with the red hair who walked in front of your house twenty-seven years ago whistling ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song.’ You were sixteen at the time.  You had half a dozen roses in your hand.  Four red and two white.  We talked a minute or so and that was all.  I’m am now fifty-one years old and want you to know that I love you.”

When, soon after, a 50ish man appears at Ann’s gate whistling a tune, Georgie is certain that it’s Barnaby come to sweep Ann off her feet.  “This is the greatest love story that’s ever taken place in the streets of Bakersfield, California!” Georgie exclaims to Ann. “Speak to him.”

Though it’s clear, at least to us in the audience, that this reddish-haired, still youthful 50ish man has no idea what either Georgie or Ann are talking about, he is so taken by the beautiful Ann that he decides to become Barnaby Gaul. After all, when Georgie asks her, “Are you sure this is the nut?”, Ann replies with complete certainty, “As sure as I’m breathing.”

To give any more of the unexpected twists and turns of Saroyan’s plot would be to spoil a dozen or more surprises, but they involve the following characters:

•Tom Fiora, Georgie’s practical joker of a fellow telegraph messenger

•Demetrios, a bushy-mustachioed Greek secretly in love with Ann

•Cabot Yearling and wife Leona, a down-and-out couple with “the stubbornness and fertility of weeds.”  The prolific pair of migrant Okies arrive on Ann’s doorstep with their 11 raggedly-dressed hyperactive children and a 12th on the way.  Oldest of the 11 is Newton, described by Saroyan as “their half wit son.”  When Barnaby wonders if they are all Cabot’s, the “family man” replies with pride, “More than half of them are.  Every one of them’s my wife’s, though.”

•Richard Oliver, an unpublished author collecting material for a novel about the Yearlings which he hopes will “improve migratory agricultural labor conditions”

•Elsa Wax, a photographer for Life Magazine. Elsa is planning an article entitled “Life Goes To A Garden Party,” which will feature pictures of the Yearlings. According to Saroyan, Richard and Elsa are “not on speaking terms because, although they dislike one another very much, they are in love.”  

•David F. Windmore, a “college man” and door-to-door salesman of Time Magazine subscriptions.  Whitmore can recite on command the names of every one of the hundred or more members of the Time Magazine staff, from Editor Henry R. Luce on down, a list which is music to Leona’s ears

•Mr. Smith and Mr. Harris, representatives of the West Coast Novelty Amusement Company, eager to put the Yearlings’ cute 16-year-old twins Selma and Velma on the San Francisco stage

•Pass Le Noir, the local sheriff (named after an actual sheriff of Saroyan’s acquaintance)

•Stylianos Americanos, Georgie’s bear of a father, always ready to “rassle” someone in need of manners

•Demetrios Americanos, Georgie’s grandfather, who speaks little English and wishes only to be young again

If you’re wondering how such a disparate group of characters could possibly come together in one play, trust William Saroyan to find a way for them all to meet in the course of a couple of hours, to audience delight. 

Martin Bedoian (assisted by Mark McClain Wilson) directs his cast of 22 with delicacy and finesse, and an absolute understanding of Saroyan’s style and purpose. His cast is perfection.

McKerrin Kelly and Steve Marvel are quirky and enchanting as “long lost loves” Ann and “Barnaby.” Michael Hershel is a wondrous breath of innocent romanticism as Georgie.  Jennifer Pennington and John Schumacher are white-trash brilliance as the Yearlings, and Heather Fox and Devin Sidell are adorable as their frisky teen twins.  Mark Thomsen and Lauren Dunagan are very funny as Richard and Elsa, and the wonderful Shawn MacAulay (Windmore) gets applause (literally) just for reciting dozens upon dozens of names (and doubles winningly as Tom). Chris Damiano is absolutely hilarious as “rassler” Stylianos, and Jack Kandel gets numerous laughs as his very old world father. Joshua Ainsley plays dumb beautifully as the Yearlings’ oldest and dimmest. Daniel Campagna amusingly channels Borat as Demetrios, doubling as fast-talking Mr. Smith opposite an equally fine Jonathan Stoner, as Mr. Harris. The Yearling family is completed by a very professional (and funny) bunch of child actors: Simon Bonzo, Colleen Gold, Hailey Gold, Christy Klocki, Kansas Klocki, Anthony Skillman, and Sabrina Williams.

Sherry Linnell has designed a couple dozen or more great 1930s costumes for the cast.  Jeff Rack’s outstanding set design scales down the Broadway original to fit GCT Theatre’s small stage, and during intermission ingeniously transforms itself from the street in front Ann’s house to the Americanos’s living room, both lit by the talented Rachel Levy.  Wilson did the fine sound design, which features lovely original music by Philip White.  Two choreographers added their talents to this production, Ryan Honey for fights and Maria Nicolacakis for dance.

The occasional appearance of nameless “poor people … homeless … no place to go” (Saroyan’s words) gives relevance to Love’s Old Sweet Song in today’s troubled economic times, while lines like the following place us in a world of unabashed romanticism:

“I’m tired, Ann. Now I must lie down in the sweet shade of love, and dream into the years of youth.  The years of our youth, Ann.  The years we have lost and shall now regain in the embrace of love.”

I loved Love’s Old Sweet Song. I laughed from beginning to end, and was entranced and enthralled and energized by the discovery of this precious Saroyan jewel. You will be too!

Syzygy Theatre Group at GTC Burbank, 1111-B West Olive Avenue, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
October 24, 2008
                                                                 Photos: Martin Bedoian

Comments are closed.