As part of their “Americana” series of productions this summer, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is offering up Green Grow the Lilacs, a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs that, while rarely performed itself, was the inspiration for the mega-hit musical Oklahoma!. If you like old-timey songs, plainspoken country folk and homespun charms, this ode to America in a bygone era will be a highlight of your summer cultural fare.
Filing in to the verdant open-air amphitheater of the Theatricum, you are given a playbill and a lyric sheet, and encouraged to sing along with the songs that are interspersed throughout the play. The play’s title comes from an Irish folk song of the same name that was popular from the mid-19th until the mid-20th century. This and other songs inspired the playwright to recall his boyhood back in Oklahoma when it was still the Indian Territories and to celebrate a way of life that had already largely passed away. While one can sense strains of a wistful, sentimental nostalgia, the overall tone invokes a warm golden veneer highlighting the sweetness, heartiness and good humor of kind, caring country folk.
The simple plot revolves around the budding romance between Curly, the singing cowboy, and Laurey, his saucy yet sweet intended. The fly in the ointment comes in the form of Jeeter, a hayseed farmhand who is prone to drunkenness and dark tempers and who also has his eye set on Laurey. It’s a setup that veers into melodrama at times, but is offset by a bawdy gaiety and “aw shucks” sentimentality. When good-guy Curly gets into hot water near the end, he goes on the run, but none of the deputies sent to track him down are very interested in bringing him back to justice; that’s just how awfully darn nice they all are.
Those same sunny qualities and the possibilities for vivid imagery are what drew Rodgers and Hammerstein to the play and made them decide to adapt it, tweaking some characters and replacing the folk songs with their own original score. While Oklahoma! is a big, lavish, glossy production, Green Grow the Lilacs is by contrast quaint, small and simple. Director Ellen Geer (daughter of Theatricum founder Will Geer) keeps the laughs coming and knows how to use the expansive space of surrounding Topanga Canyon effectively. For example, she takes advantage of the enormous stage depth by having faint songs begin way off in the dim evening distance, growing in volume and impact as the troubadours finally appear out of the shadows.
When the play first opened on Broadway in 1931, critics suggested that perhaps the playwright had created a new art form — the folk drama. Perhaps so, but as with any drama, it must rise or fall depending on the truthfulness of the characters and how well they are portrayed. Jeff Wiesen’s Curly is amiably goofy, if a tad silly, while Steven B. Green’s Jeeter comes off effectively dirty, lecherous and malevolent. But I liked the female leads the best. Willow Geer (another family member) plays Laurey with the air of a young girl who has a faint idea of the power of her sexuality, but no idea how to harness it. Elizabeth Tobias offers a sly and sturdy Ado Annie and showed off her singing ability as well on a solo. Best was Melora Marshall as Aunt Eller. Her exaggerated twang and no-nonsense demeanor combined with a comic air reminded me of Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but with additional depth.
So if you can imagine yourself warbling along with old favorites such as “Home on the Range,” “Git Along Little Dogies,” and “Skip to My Lou,” while listening to characters spinning cornball vernacular like “shore as shootin’” and “you betcha,” you will undoubtedly enjoy sitting outdoors on a warm summer night watching the antics of those so skilled at evoking the mood of a long-vanished America.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
Green Grow the Lilacs continues through Sept. 26 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga 90290. Enjoy a pre-show discussion on Sunday, Aug. 16, at 2:30 p.m. (included in ticket price) or a pre-performance buffet dinner in the gardens at 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 21 or 28 (separate admission, or combination package available). For show times, tickets and more information, call (310) 455-3723 or visit www.theatricum.com.