ST. CHARLES – Fox Valley Repertory’s production of “Cheaper by the Dozen” is an invitation into the living room and lives of one extraordinary family.
Based on the beloved American memoir by siblings Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, the coming-of-age comedy – adapted by Christopher Sergel – is a relatable story of teenage rebellion, selfishness, sacrifice, love and the preciousness of time spent, even if efficiently, together as a family.
Directed by Vance Smith, the show begins with two of the older Gilbreth siblings (played by Grace Etzkorn and Josh Greiveldinger) looking back on their childhood during the time immediately preceding the death of the family patriarch and king of efficiency, Frank Gilbreth Sr. (Michael Dailey), in the 1920s.
The title of the biographical story comes from a favorite joke made by the childrens’ father when asked why he and his wife (played by Laura Sturm) had so many kids. He would respond, “You know, they come cheaper by the dozen!”
With 12 kids to wrangle, Frank Gilbreth Sr. rules the roost by means of dictatorship posing as “democracy.” His “what-I-say-goes” parenting style is relatable, as well as humorous, especially as the eldest daughters start taking stock in the problems that plague any angst-fueled teenage girl – boys.
The show employs 13 cast members and 10 understudies as Fox Valley Rep’s largest acting company in its history of professional productions, according to artistic director John Gawlik. Eleven actors hail from Fox Valley Rep’s own performing arts academy, including Nathan Castagna (Fred), 12, of Geneva; and Erika (Lillian), 12, and Keira Denker (Jackie), 10, of St. Charles.
The meticulously-designed living-room set stays the same throughout the show, but the story bounces back and forth through time via flashbacks had by the story’s tellers – Ernestine and Frank Gilbreth – who provide profundity and nuance to the story as they unravel the intricate pieces of their past as it leads up to a life-changing juncture.
Etzkorn delivers a natural and distinct performance as Ernestine, breathing life, subtle variation and well-timed humor into her role. It comes as no surprise that the high school junior also recently appeared on the NBC television series “Chicago Fire” as Sophie; she is a talented actress who has the goods. Kelsey Sante, who has trained with Acting Studio Chicago and Columbia College, also delivers an adept performance as Anne, the eldest daughter.
The final scene is weighted by the foretold gravitas of events to come, especially since many of the characters are unaware of what is about to happen or even that their father is sick. The emotionality of the scene was not lost, which a quick scan of the crowd confirmed. Audience members wiped away tears over an inevitable and greatly feared part of life – the death of a parent.