Locked-Up With Laughter: A2 Civic Theatre’s "My Three Angels" is a sharp family comedy


My Three Angels

L-R: Dillon Roseen, Theo Polley, Jim Sullivan, and Ellen Finch in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's My Three Angels. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

When Barbara Mackey King proposed directing My Three Angels for this season at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, she had two goals in mind. One was for actors and the other for audiences.

“I was in another play at Civic Theatre and everyone was talking about how there weren’t a lot of great plays for older actors,” she said. “I thought I can help with that and I remembered My Three Angels, which has some very fine parts for older, experienced actors.”

She was also looking for a play that would appeal to a diverse audience.

“I chose this play because it’s what I would call a good family comedy,” she said. “By that I mean not Leave It to Beaver or something like that, not for tiny kids. But something that the whole family can enjoy. It’s not too salacious or suggestive or anything like that. It’s something you can bring older kids to.”

She said that’s important for the future of live theater.

“That’s the way you build your audience and every theater needs to build their audience,” she said. “They need to have younger people coming into it all the time, coming with their parents, not just one group of people.”

My Three Angels is a comedy by Samuel and Bella Spewack that premiered on Broadway in 1953. It will be presented Oct. 24-27 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The play is set in 1910 in French Guiana, a prison colony. Three prisoners are assigned to repair the roof for the Ducotel family, during the Christmas season.

“They come to the home of the Ducotels to repair their roof and they also repair the family’s finances, they find a beau for the young daughter and they solve a lot of problems the family has,” King said.

My Three Angels

L-R Paul Bianchi, Dillon Roseen, Jim Sullivan, Theo Polley, Chelsea Kearns, and Ellen Finch in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's My Three Angels. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

The play ran for several months on Broadway with Walter Slezak in the key role of the prisoner Joseph. It was made into a movie in 1955 with Humphrey Bogart in the role of Joseph and co-starring Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov. It was later loosely adapted by David Mamet for a 1989 movie starring Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn.

Despite its family appeal, My Three Angels deals with a provocative subject.

“It’s an unusual comedy,” King said. “It was produced a little later than Arsenic and Old Lace, which was a comedy about murder and this is a comedy about murder. You have to feel that the murders were in some way justified and with not too much horror so it remains in the comedy genre.”

Her goal of bringing together veteran and new actors is proving successful.

“You have several people who are very experienced and you have one young fellow playing a role who is less experienced but still doing very well,” King said. “I think when you have a combination of older experienced actors and younger ones, the younger ones pick up a lot of the ways of working and interpreting lines and working through a character. You can’t do that if it’s all young actors.”

In her prepared director’s notes for the production, King offers high praise for her cast.

“An amateur actor will simply learn his lines and movements and then repeat them exactly in each subsequent rehearsal or performance,” she writes. “A professional actor, on the other hand, will continue to be creative, searching out the most effective way to express a line or movement throughout the rehearsal process. By this standard, all the actors in this production are professionals. As they have gotten into their characters, each has suggested a preferable means of conveying the spirit of the script. My role as a director has been merely to enjoy the creative collaboration they have developed.”

King made her Civic debut when she was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1960s. She played the role of Persephone in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida under the direction of Ted Heusel. More recently she has acted in two Civic productions, Mornings at Seven and Arsenic and Old Lace.

When asked what she wanted the audience to take away from the production she said she hopes they have “an enjoyable evening out.”

“The play doesn’t have a much deeper message, nothing to carry with you,” King said. “The play is funny. We have people coming in to work and I’ve heard giggles and they laugh. They even laugh at things I didn’t think were funny. The characters are enjoyable.”

On further reflection, she said there is a lesson in this play.

King said when the three prisoners come to work on the roof someone remarks that they don’t look like convicts. One of the prisoners responds, “Well you find all kinds in prisons.”

“I went to an AAUW meeting and one of the ladies was saying that her daughter is working with female prisoners and she was surprised that all kinds of people were there and that’s exactly what he says in the play,” King said. “There are affectionate feelings for these men who come to work on the roof and each is a very different person. You come to know them as people and not just prisoners.”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of “My Three Angels” will be presented at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Oct. 24, at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 25-26, and 2 pm on Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave., on the north campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets, call 734-971-2228 or visit a2ct.org.