The Peace College Theatre presentation of Kentucky dramatist John Patrick’s quirky 1950 comedy The Curious Savage, starring Wilmington actress Debra Gillingham in the title role, gives new life to an old chestnut. Gillingham creates a wonderfully witty, wide-eyed portrait as poor befuddled Ethel P. Savage, a wealthy widow shanghaied by her money-hungry grown stepchildren and involuntarily committed to a posh private mental institution.

Ethel is a certified—but not necessarily certifiable—eccentric who fancies herself an actress and has the financial wherewithal to bankroll her own star vehicles, no matter how unpopular they are with the critics and theatergoing public. Alarmed by their stepmother’s increasing eccentricity and impatient to get their hot little hands on their dead father’s fortune, Ethel’s stepchildren Titus (Stephen LeTrent), Lily Belle (Lynda Clark), and Samuel (David Coulter) begin to panic when their stepmother acquires and then hides $10 million in negotiable bonds, after announcing that she wants to use that money to endow a Jonathan Savage Memorial Fund to honor her late husband’s memory by funding philanthropic works. So, they commit Ethel to “The Cloisters” until she comes to her sense and produces and turns over the bonds to them.

The play’s quirky heroine definitely marches to a different drum, but her fellow residents at “The Cloisters” each step lively to a whole different orchestra. Fairy May (Peace College junior Kristal DeSantis) is a highly strung ugly duckling who is never going to turn into a beautiful swan; Jeff (Hampton Rowe) is a wounded World War II veteran morbidly self-conscious about his burn scars; Florence (Sarah Thomas) is a young mother shattered by—and deep, deep in a state of denial over—the death of her young son John Thomas (10-year-old Garrett Walston); Hannibal (Greg Paul) fancies himself a concert violinist as he furiously saws away on the violin, making a horrible racket; and Mrs. Paddy (Peace sophomore Antonia Hoyland) is an antisocial obsessive-compulsive patient who quite literally hates anything and everything and rushes about the institution turning out lights and leaving Dr. Emmett (David Byron Hudson) and his assistant Miss Willie (Peace freshman Joanna Coats, making her PCT debut) and her fellow patients and any visitors, such as Mrs. Savages’ stepchildren, in the ensuing dark.

Debra Gillingham expertly limns Ethel Savage’s evolution from bewildered victim of her stepchildren’s machinations to self-confident confidante to the whole ward; and Triangle diva Lynda Clark is a scream as the high-strung, much married Lily Belle, who desperately needs an immediate financial infusion to keep paying off her six feckless former husbands and bankroll her search for her next Mr. Right.

Although less polished, Stephen LeTrent as U.S. Senator Titus Savage and David Coulter as state judge Samuel Savage provide nice foils for exchanging verbal brickbats with Debra Gillingham. Kristal DeSantis makes Fairy May flighty and flirtatious but very vulnerable, too; and Hampton Rowe plays Jeff with poignancy. David Hudson brings a professional calm to his portrayal of Dr. Emmett, and Sarah Thomas captures her character Florence’s quiet desperation at the unexpected loss of a child.

Scenic designer Sonya Leigh Drum does her usual exceptionally fine job of creating the spacious but comfy living room of “The Cloisters” in impressive detail, and costumer Lynda Clark outfits herself and her fellow cast members in a striking assemblage of 1950s fashions. The Curious Savage is a handsome show, smartly staged by Dr. Kenny Gannon, PCT’s artistic director; and it should improve in performance as the more inexperienced members of the cast becomes more confident in the roles.

Peace College Theatre presents The Curious Savage Friday-Saturday, Oct. 20-21, at 7:30 p.m. and Monday-Saturday, Oct. 23-28, at 7:30 p.m. in Leggett Theater in Main Building, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($5 students and $10 faculty and staff). 919/508-2051 or mailto: Peace College Theatre: [inactive 9/07]. Internet Broadway Database: