The set of “I Remember Mama,” now playing at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, is a big room full of big wooden tables, capable of sitting six people each. It’s like the dining room of a nursing home or assisted-living facility, except many of the tables are cluttered with stuff — piles of books, and old silverware, and so on.
Throughout the evening, 10 actors — all women and all older than 60 — act out roles in the play, portraying both male and female characters, some young and some old. There are 25 characters in all, so most of the actresses play two or more, though Barbara Andres — who plays the fondly remembered title character, the serenely wise matriarch of a working-class family of Norwegian immigrant in San Francisco — sticks to just that.
This production, which originated at New York’s Transport Group in 2014 and is currently being reproduced at the Two River Theater in Red Bank with the same director (Jack Cummings III) and many of the same actresses, is quite ingenious. Is the action flowing from the memory of Katrin (Mia Katigbak), one of Mama’s daughters, who becomes a writer, and serves as a kind of narrator here? Or does the story serve as some kind of universal representation of all the characters’ memories? Cummings leaves the production open to these interpretations, or others.
But I question if the play itself — which John Van Druten adapted from the Kathryn Forbes novel “Mama’s Bank Account” in 1944 — is worth the effort. Its sentimentality makes it seem dated, though that isn’t even the main problem. The main problem is that there is no central confict: The family just encounters one problem after another, with Mama and Papa (Dale Soules) always knowing best, and steering the family through its difficulties with love and warmth.
And while the strategy of having older actresses play all the parts does make the production unique and memorable, it adds certain problems. It was a little hard, especially early on, to figure out who everyone was supposed to be playing. I found it hard to get caught up in the action when I was constantly trying to keep all the characters straight.
And there was also a distancing effect: While you easily could forget you were watching an actress play a part when Andres was portraying Mama, it was much harder to do so when Heather MacRae, for instance, was playing Mama’s teenaged son Nels, or Marjorie Johnson was playing Mama’s even younger child, Dagmar.
In addition to Mama, Papa and their children, the cast of characters includes three aunts, and uncle and a boarder (most of whom are less saintly than the central family). And they all figure significantly in various vignettes. There are a lot of characters here, and as an end result, you don’t get to know anyone particularly well. Not even Katrin, which minimizes the impact of what is, arguably, the play’s main storyline: The way she became a successful writer by using her own family as raw material.
“I Remember Mama” is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through June 26; visit tworivertheater.org.