In the captivating “Say Goodnight Gracie,” the latest Virginia Rep production at Hanover Tavern, Scott Wichmann would have succeeded in his portrayal of George Burns if he’d just done a decent impression of the legendary comedian. After all, Burns’ life as rendered in Rupert Holmes’ finely crafted script is a love story, a history lesson and an often-hilarious stand-up act all wrapped into one.
But Wichmann does so much more in this brisk 80-minute show that it isn’t so much a one-man performance as a masterful melding of actor and character. Most important, the actor makes you feel the all-encompassing love, gratitude and respect Burns felt for his partner in life and in comedy, Gracie Allen. Though she isn’t portrayed onstage, Allen is ever-present in the show: she’s heard in radio recordings, seen in clips from television shows and movies, and always on the mind of Burns. While Burns gave the impression of being happy-go-lucky, Wichmann reveals the comedian’s tender side in his ardent courtship of Allen early on, and in coping with her physical frailty as she got older.
Burns met Allen when he was 27 and already had spent 20 years in show business. Born Nathan Birnbaum, he discovered performing when he was working making syrup at a local candy shop with other boys who passed the time by singing in harmony. When he realized he was making more money from passersby throwing pennies than from his job, his career path was set. While Burns knocks around vaudeville, Wichmann gets a chance to display a little nifty dancing and exercise his excellent singing voice while keeping up his joke-a-minute patter.
After Burns meets Allen and their career takes off, the directing prowess of Chase Kniffen comes to the fore as he finds seamless ways of alternating between Burns’ ongoing monologue, re-created conversations between Burns and Allen, and several multimedia interjections.
The technical elements are spare. Terrie Powers’ set design frames Burns with a small proscenium arch as a backdrop, and the costumes (by Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller-Hailey) are minimal. Lighting designer K. Jenna Ferree gets to show off some flourishes: The entire show is framed as a dialogue between Burns and God, who speaks largely through flashes of light.
In a life that spanned more than 100 years, Burns struggled and succeeded, loved and lost, had many famous friendships and enjoyed a resurgent popularity long after his contemporaries retired or died. Wichmann -- whose first major role in Richmond was playing Frank Sinatra more than 13 years ago -- knows how to infuse an icon with humanity. His Burns is the most humble, lovable and downright entertaining character you’re likely to see onstage this season, or maybe ever.“Say Goodnight Gracie” plays at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road in Hanover, through Nov. 3. For tickets and information call 282-2620 or go to va-rep.org.