Lifeline Theatre

It’s remarkable how animated an inanimate object can appear. In Lifeline Theatre’s family matinee, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the eponymous birds are played not by short actors in costumes or even by puppets, but by stuffed toys. They suggest a great deal of movement and personality, however, because the production’s live actors handle them so cleverly. The leader of the flock, Captain Cook, is just a big toy on wheels; yet from his first appearance, when he pokes his head out curiously from the box in which he’s been shipped from the south pole to Stillwater, Oklahoma, he seems as expressive and fully developed as many characters played by real people, thanks to the committed way his human costars look at, talk to, and handle him. By the time Cook and his family make their way close to the audience, the rug rats in the front rows can’t wait to touch them. Their adult companions were more restrained at the show I attended–they waited till the end of the show–but most couldn’t resist a discreet pat on the way out the door.

Based on a 1938 book by Richard Atwater, a University of Chicago professor and columnist for the Chicago Evening Post, and his wife Florence, Mr. Popper’s Penguins concerns a mild-mannered housepainter who dreams of adventures in far-off lands; he’s especially enamored of the antarctic travels of “Admiral Drake,” as the Atwaters named their stand-in for polar explorer Richard Byrd. The housepainter is thrilled to discover that the surprise package he gets in response to a fan letter to Drake contains a penguin. Popper and his family teach the bird to live in their icebox, and they find it a proud and playful pet; but it begins to pine for its own kind, so they obtain a female penguin from a nearby zoo. One and one soon equal 12, and the Poppers are saddled with a bird brood they hardly know what to do with. Then Mr. Popper hits on the idea of training the animals for the stage: Popper’s Performing Penguins (who are named after explorers such as Scott, Columbus, and Magellan) become the rage of the vaudeville circuit–until a series of misadventures lands them in jail. But all problems are solved when Admiral Drake himself comes to town and schlepps the birds–and Mr. Popper–off to the arctic.

This simple story has been nicely compressed into a 40-minute show by playwright Meryl Friedman, composer Douglas Wood, and director Ruth Landis. They’ve eliminated some of the story’s more elaborate digressions, but they preserve its knack for communicating interesting information about polar life through seemingly natural conversation: Mr. Popper, a distracted dreamer who’s close kin to Thurber’s Walter Mitty, regales his family with amusing anecdotes about how penguins live and play.

“Play” is the key word here; penguins are among the most playful of animals, and the main message in Mr. Popper’s Penguins concerns the importance of having fun. Popper himself is regarded as an absentminded kook at first–until the penguins’ unlikely presence wins the rest of the Popper family over to his magnificent obsession. Even as the humans teach the birds to function as a stage team, the birds teach the humans not to take life too seriously.

In Lifeline’s charmingly low-key production, that message is memorably conveyed through the engaged and engaging interaction between the toy birds and the charming and skillful actors: Nicholas Gibson as gentle, goofy Mr. Popper, Susan Shimer as his wife, Ann Heekin as narrator, and Michele Gregory and Tim Barker as a variety of characters (Barker’s silly gunslinger of an icebox serviceman is especially funny). Youngsters are entranced by the verisimilitude of Captain Cook’s comings and goings from his icebox home, and adults by the cleverness of such illusions. Especially entertaining is the vaudeville-show sequence, in which the actors make the birds toboggan through hoops. All they’re really doing is throwing toys, of course, but the fun they’re having makes the birds–and the stage–come to life in this delightful show.

In my December 13 review of Steppenwolf Theatre’s A Summer Remembered, I surmised that author Charles Nolte had little other experience as a playwright. I shouldn’t have relied on Nolte’s meager biography in the program, which omitted any mention of his other play-writing accomplishments. (It also gave short shrift to his acting career; among other roles, Nolte was the original Billy Budd in the 1951 Broadway play based on Herman Melville’s novella.) In fact, Nolte’s the author of several plays that have been staged at regional and college theaters, and his Do Not Pass Go was mounted off-Broadway in 1965 by the esteemed director Alan Schneider. I was interested to read a New York Times review of that show that mentioned that one character–played by Nolte himself–was haunted by memories of “a father who once thought him as frail as a hermaphrodite.”

“Hermaphrodite” is also the insult applied by the bullying father in A Summer Remembered to the young son through whose memory the play’s action seems to be filtered. While I want to correct my earlier misassessment of Nolte’s track record, I’m even more convinced now of my statement that the play “feels like a singular work by a writer with a special story to tell”–and that for all its flaws, A Summer Remembered is one of the more touching, and most effectively performed, scripts Steppenwolf has produced.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.