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'George' is amusing look at country life

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- "George Washington may have slept here, but Martha wasn't a very good housekeeper." That's what Okoboji Theatre's Emily Quartaro says when she first sees the house her husband has bought for her as a surprise.

The Summer Theatre's (OST) current play, "George Washington Slept Here," is a familiar story of the city sucker who falls into the clutches of an unscrupulous seller when he chooses his dream place in the country, in this case without consulting his wife.

The fretting wife knows that she will hate country living. She wants to return to her New York apartment and read about American history rather than experience it first-hand. Her husband feels only optimism over his bargain, an abandoned Pennsylvania farmhouse dating back to Revolutionary War days. Colonial soldiers are buried in the old graveyard down the road, and Washington crossed the Delaware nearby.

What could be better? Well, almost any other place might be. Exasperating complications begin almost as soon as the contract is signed: disputed property lines, lack of water, ill-timed computer train schedules, never-ending costs and invasion by the Japanese beetle, to name a few.

Even though George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who also collaborated on "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Man Who Came To Dinner," produced "George Washington Slept Here" back in 1940, their subject matter doesn't seem particularly dated because over the years people have kept on buying country places and being amazed when they faced unexpected problems. Both Kaufman and Hart tried living in historic farmhouses with their own families before writing this play.

Plot complications are tangled, then untangled to a satisfactory conclusion by Act III, and are often amusing. The last act is the best when unpleasant characters get their "comeuppance" during some funny twists and turns.

In this very large cast, there are many minor roles of neighbors and house guests who move on and off stage quickly. The most noteworthy performances are by veteran actor Michael Rapport as proud house-owner Fuller, John Watkins as rich Uncle Stanley, who spends his vacations visiting nephews and nieces, all of whom are expecting to reap rewards in his will, and Fritz Lennon, the dour custodian.

Long-time-pro Lennon has created this same handyman role at OST twice (1966 and '76) before his current appearance. Each time his dead-pan expression with slow country drawl has delighted us and brought bursts of laughter and applause from the audience.

Quartaro, portraying Mrs. Fuller, grew on me as the action progressed. She has the hardest part of all, needing to show a continuous "chip on her shoulder" and be likeable at the same time. One of her best scenes is when she finally gets to lie down on the couch for a nap only to be attacked by a buzzing insect, which she keeps trying to hit with a fly swatter.

Addison Myers, much-loved former OST managing artistic director, is back from Kansas City and Columbia, Mo., to direct this play, also filling a smaller memorable role of the disagreeable next door neighbor, fighting over lot-line boundaries. Myers' return always brings joy to the Okoboji community.

Stephens College student Alex Rodriguez makes a cute young nephew, continuously into mischief. His sly, wicked smile is a winner and earns him the Fuller family nickname of "Huckleberry Capone."

The change-about set from broken-down disaster area to comfortable, country-look works just right. Sound effects include mooing of a cow, warbling of a barn swallow, drilling for the well and heavy rainfall on the roof, which is found to have holes.

"George Washington Slept Here" continues through Sunday. By the way, Washington didn't really sleep at that farmhouse, but legend has it that Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold did.