Review: ‘The Matchmaker’ from another era

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 Kathryn Petersen as Dolly in the People's Light production of 'The Matchmaker.' (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Kathryn Petersen as Dolly in the People's Light production of 'The Matchmaker.' (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker” has a sweet innocence from another time, on clear display in a production at People’s Light in Malvern. “The world is full of wonderful things!” someone declares in the first half. One by one, all of the characters come to believe it.

No one has to convince Dolly Gallagher Levy, a belle-of-the-ball whose several enterprises include matchmaking. The world for her is endless options and by hook or crook, she’s a shaper of them. “The Matchmaker” reached Broadway in 1955 in the form we see it today. Wilder’s first version of it, in which Dolly was not the major character, bombed decades before. Rewriting Dolly as a force for reckoning and putting her at the forefront of the plot brought Wilder the good fortune that Dolly always promises others. Today, most of us know “The Matchmaker” as the musical “Hello, Dolly!”

A revival of that show opens on Broadway in April and because Bette Midler will play Dolly, the box office is one of the hottest spots right now in midtown Manhattan. But you don’t need flashy mamas to bring ’em in the door for “The Matchmaker” — the multi-talented Kathryn Petersen will do the trick.

In the likable production staged by People’s Light artistic director Abigail Adams, Petersen is not the sort of Dolly who could charm a snake and possibly also be one. That would be more like the Dolly Levy in the musical. Wilder’s Dolly in “The Matchmaker” is more down-to-earth than she is Mother Earth. Still, this Dolly and the musical’s Dolly are wily women, so it’s all a matter of tone.

Petersen’s tone is colored in pastels, not garish hues. She’s a little bumbling, a little needy, and her bluff comes covered in silk and lace. (The actual costumes, by Marla Jurglanis, are late 1800s confections.) Petersen is playful and exudes a decidedly old-fashioned sensibility, which also describes “The Matchmaker.”

If you’re expecting the starkly beautiful gravitas of Wilder’s masterpiece, “Our Town,” you won’t find it in the Yonkers or Manhattan of “The Matchmaker,” where everyone tries to manipulate a person or situation and stay out of trouble. A rich, arrogant fool of a man named Horace Vandergelder (the commanding Graham Smith, in top form) is counting on Dolly to get him a servile wife in New York. He’s also attempting to keep his weepy niece (Mina Kawahara) away from an artsy suitor (James Ijames). But Dolly has her own eyes on Vandergelder (and his wallet) and also takes sides with the man’s niece and paramour.

The light comedy — no great big guffaws here, just smiles at the vagaries of life and of the plot — ends up with many other characters, and eventually becomes more like a farce. Many of the roles are taken by longtime People’s Light ensemble members, troopers in the best sense of the word, able to play anyone. And to bring the pitch up a notch, Liz Filios and Melanie Hsu sit to one side of the action to provide instrumentals and occasional sound effects. (Along with the rest of the cast, they also set the turn-of-century mood by performing a half hour of old-time music before the play.)

You might sit at “The Matchmaker” and think, gee, they don’t write ’em like that anymore — possibly a complement, possibly a put-down. True, nowadays comedies and farces are far edgier, more fitted to the style of the times. No one must know this better than the Dolly Levy of this production; Petersen has written six of the raucous and funny pantos that have become a holiday trademark for People’s Light.

Yet the softer comedy of “The Matchmaker,” firmly grounded in the old days, doesn’t become outdated. Fluent playwriting, ideas that tie together, characters that crackle and situations that delight – these never do.

“The Matchmaker” runs through March 12 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org.

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