Totem's `Happiness' a joy to see

Review: `Pursuit of Happiness' captures the comic American courting traditions of the Revolutionary War era.

July 09, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Located just outside Gettysburg, Totem Pole Playhouse may be deep in Civil War territory, but the theater is paying a charming tribute to another chapter of American history with "The Pursuit of Happiness."

A comedy with a Revolutionary War-era setting, "The Pursuit of Happiness" was written in 1933 by Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall Langner, made into a movie a year later and a Broadway musical ("Arms and the Girl") in 1950. Although the play is rarely produced these days, it has become something of a favorite at Pennsylvania's Totem Pole, where it is undergoing its third thoroughly enjoyable revival under the direction of the theater's Baltimore-based producing artistic director, Carl Schurr.

Set in the home of Aaron Kirkland, a prosperous Connecticut farmer, in 1777-1778, the comedy focuses on the quaint early American custom of "bundling," in which a courting couple on a chilly night would carry out their wooing in bed -- though fully dressed and with a "bundling board" between them.

Endorsed by the farmer's family, the custom draws the ire of the self-righteous local reverend (a comically scowling Wil Love) and the delighted disbelief of a Hessian deserter who falls in love with the farmer's daughter, Prudence.

For the Hessian, played with great bonhomie by Damon Bonetti, the notion of a country founded on the right to life, liberty and, especially, the pursuit of happiness, is almost too good to believe. "Everybody is to run after happiness. What a promise for humanity!" he gleefully exclaims. Add bundling to the mix, and America is a dream come true.

His pursuit of that dream, however, is hampered not only by the reverend but also by the thick-headed, by-the-book county sheriff (Patrick Ellison Shea), who is vying for Prudence's hand.

The Langners clearly had a knack for creating 18th-century folk whose impulses and desires are recognizably modern -- from the loving Kirkland family to their lusty maid (spunky Chelle S. McIntyre), who proudly proclaims that she's never been to bed with a man, though she has taken a few rolls in the hay.

The entire production is well cast, but director Schurr has added a particularly sweet touch by having farmer Kirkland and his daughter Prudence played by Mike and Tess Hartman, a real-life father and daughter who bring genuine warmth to their roles.

There are enough Baltimore connections to encourage any patriotic Baltimorean to make the pleasant journey north to this halcyon summer theater, nestled in a Pennsylvania state park. In addition to Schurr, Charm City is represented by Love (who played the same role in Totem Pole's 1974 production), co-costume designers David Burdick and Ted Frankenhauser and former Baltimoreans Mike and Tess Hartman.

With the last Independence Day firecracker no longer even an ember, the holiday celebration still burns brightly at Totem Pole, whose production of "The Pursuit of Happiness" lives up to the play's title.

`The Pursuit of Happiness'

Where: Totem Pole Playhouse, 9555 Golf Course Road, Caledonia State Park, 15 miles west of Gettysburg

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through July 18

Tickets: $18-$25

Call: 717-352-2164

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