Theater Review: Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”

Girl Friday, a stellar theater company based here in Minneapolis, is finishing up its run of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker this week. Given that time is running out, I wanted to provide a quick review so that you still have a chance to see it before it closes.

And to be clear, you most definitely should see it.

This is one of those wonderful confluences when the perfect theater company, play, director, cast and crew come together to work magic. If you’ll excuse the pun, this really is a match made in heaven.

Wilder’s text is a classic, but most people will primarily recognize it as the basis for the popular musical, Hello, Dolly! On the face of it the story is a classic farce; a collection of couples go through a manic trial by fire, with plenty of mistaken identities, chance encounters, desperate disguises, and quick escapes before everything comes out right. But the “farce” label only hints at the play’s hidden and surprising depths. At its core, the comedy is a running argument about the need to balance work with recreation. While it is no way an anti-capitalist rant, it repeatedly asks the audience, what are you earning your money for? What is the good life, and how do you live it? For those of us who struggle to achieve a good work-life balance, this topic still resonates powerfully today.

On top of that, the play explores the idea of balancing security with adventure, and urges us all to take a chance when given the opportunity. Or perhaps more importantly, to take a second chance when given the opportunity. Sure, there are a series of young characters like Cornelius, Barnaby, Ermengarde and Ambrose who are setting out on their first great adventure, and we joyfully root for them as they make a bid for the relationship or the career they want. But there are also more seasoned characters such as Horace, Dolly, and Irene Malloy who have had their youthful dreams cut short, but are determined to grab onto new dreams before the parade passes by. And we really root for them.

The language of The Matchmaker is rich and wonderful—and wonderfully contemporary. I could see a half-dozen lines making perfect Internet memes.

But its true strength is its impressive array of characters. Although the play is a farce, Wilder gives his characters a wonderful sense of humanity. They are memorable and instantly relatable—and played to perfection by a knock-out cast.

For example, Karen Wiese-Thompson is sensational as Dolly Levi, the wonderfully meddling widow who sets everything in motion. Dolly is a quick-witted, strong-willed woman who has decided to marry again, and has set her eyes on Horace Vandergelder—the richest man in Yonkers, New York. This is a plum part for an actress, a chance to play a real force of nature. And Wiese-Thompson does so with relish. But she doesn’t portray Dolly simply as a human bulldozer; Wiese-Thompson brings a fantastic sense of understatement to the role, with a wry bit of earthiness that keeps the character from ever becoming a caricature. Her Dolly is warm, sympathetic, and vulnerable.

But there’s more. For the record, it’s clear that for all Dolly’s legendary scheming, most of the action in The Matchmaker catches her unaware. Dolly’s true brilliance is in taking stock of a situation, and spinning events to her advantage. Wiese-Thompson plays this up perfectly, allowing us to see Dolly start to hatch her plans on the spot, and start to run with them on the fly. In watching her performance, you get to see those wonderful “a-ha” wonderful moments when her brain finally catches up to her sliver-smooth tongue… and the wild ad-libbing coalesces into an actual plan. It is a wonderful performance, and you have no doubt that Dolly can do anything she sets her mind to.

But Wiese-Thompson’s is not the only stand-out performance. Alan Sorenson is strong as Horace, the blustery tycoon who thinks he’s ready for a “foolish adventure”… and gets more than he bargained for. He too brings a perfect level of understatement to the role—his gruff blusterings never verge into camp, making him all too believable. Lindsay Marcy is pitch-perfect as Irene Malloy, the widow who has had enough of being trapped in the dreary existence of running a hat shop. Marcy gives her character the right amount of coiled frustration, but balances it with strength, grit and self-awareness. You can fully understand why she instantly jumps at the chance to have a night out with Cornelius, and why Cornelius is swept off his feet when he meets her. Indeed, she’s a perfect match for Cornelius, the stifled store clerk who wants just one dang adventure in his life before it’s too late. Dan Hopman gives the character the right amount of bashful charm, but also presents his inner fire. It’s a joy to watch him come alive in the company of Mrs. Malloy… to the point that he’s ready to flip a restaurant table or two if that’s what it takes to impress her. The minor characters are all strongly cast, with a special nod to Kirby Bennet as the zany Flora Van Huysen, whose apartment serves as ground zero when all the various plot lines finally collide in the last act.

Director Craig Johnson weaves all the various zany adventures together with a deft hand, keeping the pacing tight and the humor flowing. But at the same time, he gives a chance for the play to “breathe,” opening up the larger lessons on life, money, and the pursuit of happiness.

But final kudos go to Girl Friday Productions, which keeps moving from strength to strength. For those not familiar with the group, the company focuses on ensemble-based, American plays of exceptional literary merit. They also have a particular fondness for plays that are rarely produced, at least by professional companies. I was fortunate enough to take in their 2007 production of Our Town, again under the strong direction of Craig Johnson, that divided up the lines normally spoken by the stage manager between the townspeople themselves. It was a revelation, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Street Scenes was equally memorable, and the fleeting final moments vividly brought home the parallels between recent immigrants arriving in America today. I can’t wait to see what project they tackle next.

But in the meantime, get your tickets to The Matchmaker while you can—it closes on July 26.

Xochipilli

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2 thoughts on “Theater Review: Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”

  1. Pingback: Great Arts Choices of “Give to the Max Day” | Mask of the Flower Prince

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