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We can’t take the obsolete message of ‘You Can’t Take it With You’

Barbara Zahora (as Penny), from left, Jack Hickey (Grandpa), Erica Bittner (Essie), Scott Westerman (Paul), Debo Balogun (Tony), Gage Wallace (Ed) in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of "You Can't Take it With You." | Jhenai Mootz.

With “You Can’t Take it With You,” Oak Park Festival Theatre delivers a marvelous production of a comedy that has aged horribly. Director Jason Gerace’s staging is heartfelt and snappy. The ensemble’s depiction of the eccentric Sycamore clan is memorable and charming. Yet George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s nearly 82-year-old play is impossible to recommend.

The problem is summed up in Grandpa’s (Jack Hickey) insistent, folksy wisdom. The Sycamore family patriarch advocates leaving your job if you don’t like it. He did, after all, and found happiness far from the money-grubbing rat race. It’s advice that only works if you are independently wealthy and never have to worry about, for example, paying a mortgage or covering medical bills.

‘You Can’t Take it With You’

★★1/2

When: Through July 22

Where: Oak Park Festival Theatre at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park

Tickets: $15-$32; kids under 12 free

Info: oakparkfestival.com

Run time: Two hours 10 minutes, including one intermission

Despite the fact that “You Can’t Take it With You” is set in 1937 — a time when people were literally starving to death in the U.S. — the Sycamores never express worries about money. They live comfortably in a house large enough to shelter the extended family and a varying parade of strangers who wander in and wind up staying.

The condescending privilege inherent in Grandpa’s advice is hard to swallow. Toward the close of the drama Grandpa — who is white — lectures a wealthy, successful African-American financier on how to be happy. The key, says Grandpa, is to quit your job and realize that money just isn’t all that important. That’s easy for Grandpa to say: He clearly has means, and doesn’t need to work in order to keep his family housed and fed. To assume everybody is so fortunate is clueless.

Grandpa: “What’s the point? You can’t take it with you.”

Mr. Kirby (Charls Sedgwick Hall): “That’s a very simple thing to say.” The response is more gracious than many would give.

Then there’s Grandpa’s refusal to pay taxes (he says he doesn’t get anything in return) or vote (it “doesn’t matter” who is president.) This, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs are saving thousands of people from hunger. When an IRS agent tells Grandpa that taxes fund the Armed Forces, Grandpa shrugs. The last time we needed an army, Grandpa says, was the Spanish-American War. (Apparently World War I wasn’t important. Ditto the rising threat of Hitler.)

For all that, Gerace’s production is rich with wonderful performances. Alice Sycamore (Tyler Meredith, beaming with the first flush of young love) is the comparatively normal daughter of an eccentric family. She invites her fiance Tony (Debo Balogun, utterly believable as a young man over-the-moon with ardor) and his conservative parents (Hall, and a delightfully regal but criminally underused Jeri Marshall) to dinner. The evening is disastrous.

Meredith and Balogun will have you rooting for Alice and Tony through exploding fireworks, cornflake dinners, and hilariously inappropriate party games. As aspiring novelist/painter/playwright Penny Sycamore, Barbara Zahora is a delightfully daffy mother hen. Scott Westerman’s Paul Sycamore is also fine as a fireworks enthusiast who sheds his pants with the matter-of-fact ease of someone loosening their tie. Kent Joseph’s imperious Russian ballet master is a hoot, especially when he’s bemoaning the fate of the last Romanovs.

In Jessica Kuehnau Wardell’s set design, the Sycamore’s idiosyncratic home elaborately detailed, from gorgeous paneling to period wallpaper. And sound designer George Zahora has packed the show with canny, hilarious touches. (Backing the IRS agent’s bloviating with Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is genius.)

From Mrs. Kirby’s epic side-eye to Alice and Tony’s earnest new love, there’s a lot of like here. But there’s no denying the problems with that script. If you’re among those who can’t afford to up and quit your job? You’ll find the message herein clueless to say the least.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.