Religion, self-denial, mercy and gratitude are not the usual stuff of stage plays, but Lamb’s Players Theatre doesn’t often do the expected.
Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story “Babette’s Feast,” adapted for the stage by Rose Courtney, plays there through Feb. 16.
The film adaptation won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1987. The play, however, was adapted from the short story, not the film.
Artistic director Robert Smyth directs this unusual piece, which takes place in the wilds of the tiny, isolated Norwegian town of Berlevaag, Norway, among a group of Puritan-style fundamentalists.
It’s strange in other ways, as well. Nine actors play not just one character each, but several, swirling around and changing in a flash. The story is more “told” than shown, and the narrator changes as well.
The commune has been run by the Dean (Jason Heil), aided by his daughters Martine (Kerry Meads) and Philippa (Deborah Gilmour Smyth). You’d think old dad would be thrilled when interesting, eligible gentlemen show up in Berlevaag and show interest in his daughters. But no, he is determined they must not marry, but continue their works of charity and await the day when they take over his church duties.
One day a distraught young woman named Babette (Yolanda Marie Franklin) arrives from France, seeking refuge. It’s 1871, Paris is in revolt and violence is difficult to avoid. Babette has escaped, and says she can cook and would be happy to be a maid and cook if they will give her safe haven.
Do they send her back across the border? Tell her immigrants are not wanted? No. They take her in, she cooks and cleans, and many years pass, quietly and piously.
One day, after years of cooking split cod and bread-and-ale soup for this abstemious crowd, Babette gets a letter: she has won the French lottery! What a gift! And what does she want to do with all that money? Why, cook a more luxurious dinner for her benefactors, of course.
The joy of this production is not in the paint-by-numbers message that charity, grace, kindness and service to others are superior ways to live, but in the amusing ways they are depicted onstage. The script is often clever, and all the actors play several characters and often do so in nearly balletic style, turning around each other in near dancelike motions.
The cast is excellent, and consists mostly of Lamb’s regulars like Kerry Meads, Caitie Grady, Jason Heil, Rick Meads, and Ross Hellwig. They’re joined by frequent performers Omri Schein (hilarious in several small roles) and Rachael VanWormer, playing the young Martine and others.
The multi-talented Deborah Gilmour Smyth composed a lovely score for the show. Cello music is at the center, played soulfully by Diana Elledge.
Mike Buckley’s set design is dual-level and malleable, but this show is not about fancy trappings. Jemima Dutra’s puritain-look costumes serve the scene well, and Babette’s has a distinct Parisian flair. Franklin is in her element here – the doyenne of the dish – and she appears to be loving it.
Lighting and sound are well handled by Nathan Peirson and Patrick Duffy.
“Babette’s Feast” may seem a bit preachy to some, but know this: “Babette appeared to be a beggar. She turned out to be a conqueror.”
“Babette’s Feast” runs through February 16, 2020 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado.
Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m.; matinees Sunday at 2 p.m. and Wednesday at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or lambsplayers.org