All the gentle souls who remember dear Christopher Robin and his forest full of furry friends will be thrilled to learn that Winnie the Pooh's dapper creator A.A. Milne wrote for grownups, too. And one of the author's more successful works for adults — his 1919 featherweight farce Mr. Pim Passes By — is now skipping lightly over the boards at Main Street Theater.
Love, marriage and the rules we live by all get a moment of amusing contemplation in this charming production, which starts when a pasty-faced, proper fellow named Carraway Pim (Fritz Dickmann) drops in on the Mardens' country house with a letter of introduction one lovely English day. Mr. Pim is a stranger to the house and doesn't want much — just to meet George Marden (Rutherford Cravens) so that he might ask George for yet another letter of introduction to a third party. All starts out innocently enough. Pim is a reasonable, unassuming fellow. In fact, he doesn't have much of a personality at all. He just smiles, nods and amuses himself wandering about the town. He does have a bit of trouble remembering names, but other than that, he's a perfectly innocuous fellow — who still manages, eventually, to cause plenty of trouble.
There's familial conflict going on before Pim ever arrives. George Marden's pretty young ward, his niece Dinah (Morgan McCarthy), wants to marry the young Brian Strange (Andrew Ruthven). The two are desperately in love, even if they don't have much money. But Brian is a painter, and George doesn't think much of his newfangled ideas about art. Clouds should look like clouds — that sort of thing. Even harder for Dinah, George doesn't think much of her getting married. She's only 19, after all.
Mr. Pim Passes By
Through December 23. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706. $20-$35.
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George is a grump. He means well, but his idea of paternal love is to fuss and grumble and say no without thinking. The couple's only hope is to appeal to Olivia Marden (Carolyn Johnson), George's reasonable, handsome wife — a woman everyone, including George, adores. Sympathetic and patient, Olivia promises to speak to George for the couple. She recognizes true love when she sees it and knows it can't be stopped.
The real joy of this production happens when this married couple is together. There's a lovely, old-fashioned chemistry between Craven's George and Johnson's Olivia, and the two look terrific together. We get to watch Olivia work her way with George, gently teasing and cajoling him toward her own ideas. She can't let him think he's being bossed around even if she does get her way him; that much is obvious in the way she secretly grins as he harrumphs at every new idea. And Cravens is a master of the grumpy good soul — a stock character for him, but one that's impossible not to enjoy. He shoves his fists in his pockets, shakes his coins, rolls up on his toes and gets red with annoyance at the slightest thing.
Johnson's Olivia is a bit more complicated, especially when she and George discover some dreadful news from Mr. Pim. It seems that Olivia's ex-husband, the one everyone thought had died in Australia many years ago, is very much alive. Mr. Pim says he saw Olivia's ex on a ship. Of course, if that's true, good Olivia is actually a bigamist and George, the man who hates newfangled ideas, is living in sin. By-the-book George is horrified. He loves Olivia but can't bring himself to break any laws or societal rules to have her. Olivia struggles to understand her "husband" even as she works to understand her own beliefs, which are not nearly so black and white as George's.
Ah, but this is a farce, and things have a way of turning out so unexpectedly in a farce. But it would be absolutely no fun to give away the ending here. Readers must be satisfied knowing that Steve Garfinkel has directed his cast with a careful balance between light humor and weightier sincerity — Milne asks very thoughtful questions about the silly rules that make society go along smoothly. Garfinkel's cast is perfect; even the smaller parts such as Anne the maid (played by a chipper Lyndsay Sweeney) and the dour Lady Marden (featuring a very stern Melinda deKay) feel right. Boris Kaplun's set is appropriately cheerful. And Sarajane Milligan's costumes, especially the dress McCarthy wears, are gorgeous. With three acts and two intermissions, one would think the show would drag, but Milne has somehow made his turn-of-the-century world feel as refreshing as a walk through Hundred Acre Wood.