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In Her Arms 

by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & rms cling, sometimes with love, sometimes with desperation; they grasp, they crush, they push away. Arms spread wide with hope and elation; arms fold across the chest and keep people from getting too close. In Hollywood Arms, written by Carol Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton (at the Civic's Studio Theatre through May 18), arms do all these things and more. Unfortunately, it's not enough.





The play opens with a brief prologue in which Burnett -- excuse me, Helen -- returns to the squalid Hollywood apartment of her youth and to the rooftop where she first dared to open her arms and dream of achieving great things. From there it quickly moves into a succession of scenes -- 12 in the first act alone -- showing slices of the life shared by Young Helen (Kate Cubberley), her divorced mother, Louise (Kate Vita), and Louise's mother, Nanny (Jackie Davis), in and around their hardscrabble efficiency.





The play is actually less about Helen than about Nanny, the Southern matriarch whose need for control has pushed away her daughter and her six husbands and threatens to squash Helen's dreams as well. Nanny self-medicates with phenobarbital, and she keeps everyone focused on her by playing the sick old woman who has "spells," requiring the attentions of her granddaughter. Louise's tranquilizer of choice is alcohol, an addiction she shares with her ex-husband, Jody (Dave Rideout). Nanny prods Louise to marry the steady-but-boring Bill (Mark Hodgson), in the hope that he will provide for them all.





Unfortunately, the episodic script can't decide if it's a drama or a TV sitcom. As a result, it veers wildly from pathos to pratfalls to poignancy. Some of the best theater comes from this kind of knife-edge balance between comedy and tragedy, but the changes here feel too abrupt and often unsupported. The 90-minute first act is overly long, and yet some of its scenes feel too short, delivering little of value in either character development or plot advancement.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & espite the script problems, some of the performances are stellar, particularly Paige Wamsley's as the older Helen. After the prologue, she isn't seen until Act Two, but once she arrives, she dominates the stage. In one extended monologue, Helen -- attending college against Nanny's wishes and working part-time in a movie theater -- describes how she saved the day at the theater when the projector died. By acting out a thumbnail version of the film's missing scenes, she enthralls three generations of her wacko family -- and the audience. Her appearance, moreover, is uncannily reminiscent of a young Burnett.





As Louise, Helen's alcoholic mother, Kate Vita offers a multidimensional portrayal of a dreamer who becomes an addict. It would be easy to play Louise as a caricature, but Vita imbues her with humanity even in her darkest moments, making her perhaps the most affecting character of the night.





Helen's father, Jody, is written with sincerity and kindness. Dave Rideout captures those well as Jody battles with tuberculosis, the bottle and hopelessness.





Jackie Davis has perhaps the toughest role as the overbearing grandmother. Nanny is a woman whose own dreams have been shattered -- by some unexplained combination of circumstance and poor choices -- and who now goes through life spraying ice water on the dreams of everyone in her family. She is the one called most often to turn on a dime from biting sarcasm to physical humor to calculated manipulation, and she doesn't always nail the hairpin corners of mood with precision. But she was more sure of herself in the second act and came on strong at the end.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & eloved The Carol Burnett Show back in the '60s and '70s; the show's skits and sketches captured absurdity and silliness. Scenes and characters from that series remain imprinted in my mind as comedic classics: Burnett's Scarlett O'Hara; Tim Conway's shuffling old man; and, of course, Vicki Lawrence's Mama.





But those characters emerged from sketches and individual scenes. They didn't have to sustain a dramatic arc through two acts and more than two hours. And while they clearly were created with great warmth and affection, they were generally one-dimensional characters with a single shtick designed for laughs. (When Mama expanded into a sitcom, she definitely lost some of her edge.)





It's clear that Burnett, despite the deep dysfunction of her family, still bears not only love but a tremendous fondness for the characters she's written based on them. Unfortunately, the words she put into their mouths give little support to those feelings. Hollywood Arms may have been intended as a belated hug from Burnett to her family, but in the end, we want to push most of them away.

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