There's something mildly voyeuristic about "Thank You Papa!" the tender Ruth and Nathan Hale comedy currently playing at the Hale Center Theater in South Salt Lake.
For one thing, the Hales not only wrote the play - they star in it. For another, the play is autobiographical, focusing on Ruth's (or, in the case of this script, Vicky's) artistic coming of age in the home of her austere father and practical mother. And for still another, the cast list includes no fewer than 12 Hale family members (all right, so I'm counting a few relatives of the shirt-tail variety) - even more if you throw in the character of baby Jesse, who is played by "any great-grandchild who is still awake."This is family comedy - with the emphasis on family.
The other definition of "family comedy" - as in "fun for the whole family" - also comes into play here, since this truly is the kind of gentle situation comedy with which the Hales have earned their considerable reputation.
Set in 1920s Utah, "Thank You Papa!" introduces audiences to Will Hudson, a stubborn, opinionated Englishman who is in constant conflict with Vicky, a feisty adopted daughter with visions of stage stardom in her eyes. Trying to maintain the peace in the family is mother Edith, a woman who is fiercely loyal to her husband and her daughter - which occasionally puts her in a difficult position as she tries to keep everyone happy.
At the heart of the play is a mostly true story (two-thirds truth, one-third fiction, according to Ruth) about the battle for Vicky's heart. On one side is her biological mother (a famous actress) and her snooty, well-to-do boyfriend. On the other are Edith and Will and a local newspaper reporter who clearly has more than a passing interest in the young woman.
The script itself is full of frothy fun, with entertaining character comedy blended with a healthy sense of the era and the times. The dialogue is sprinkled with historical allusions and slang expressions from the period, never missing an opportunity to point out how inexpensive commodities were then compared to today's prices. But most of the laughs come from the hearty Hale sense of humor, which elicits responses so strong that the actors need to be reminded to wait for audience reaction to subside before proceeding with the next line.
As fun as the script is, however, the real reason to watch this production is the chance to see Ruth and Nathan Hale play off of each other on stage. There is a chemistry that exists between them that you just won't feel from any acting team this side of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. They operate with an understood shorthand that comes from years of living, working and loving together, and it gives their performance an added dimension of reality, pathos and poignancy. You'll not see anything quite like it. Anywhere.
Others in the cast also perform well, including Sarah Sandberg Hale (as Vicky), Tyler Woodhouse (Tenny Davidson), Sherry Hale Brian (Estelle Harrington) and Jonathan Hale (David Henderson).
As with most HCT productions, the performances and production values, while not up to professional standards, are competently executed and lovingly presented. "Thank You Papa!" is light-hearted, energetic family entertainment.
Hale family, that is.