Monday, November 28, 2011

ASF: "A Christmas Memory"

Truman Capote's largely autobiographical A Christmas Memory (1956) has become a staple fare for the holidays, evoking a past & more gentle time and the simplicity of a heart willing to give for the pure joy of giving, asking nothing in return but friendship and love.

Its most recent version now on offer at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a musical adaptation (2010) by Duane Poole, with music by Larry Grossman and lyrics by Carol Hall. -- Although it adds characters to Capote's text, this version is otherwise true to the original's intentions, capitalizing on incorporating Capote's narrative that makes the simple profound and the ordinary poetic.

The heartwarming story of the close and loving relationship between a boy named Buddy Faulk [James Zitelli] and his elderly cousin Sook [Kay Walbye] is narrated and bookended by the adult Buddy [Jonathan Rayson], a successful author who questions his writing ability and purpose, and who returns in 1955 to sell his childhood home in Monroeville, Alabama, where he meets Anna Stabler [Terry Burrell] the long-time family housekeeper, triggering reminiscences of the 1930s events that shaped him and ending with the adult writing the story of his childhood.

In its two acts, sensitively directed by Karen Azenberg, Buddy's and Sook's 1930s adventures are interspersed with songs and 1950s commentary on them. -- A total of seven actors create an excellent ensemble of multi-dimensional, credible & familiar individuals, allowing the sentimental material to tap into the audience's awareness of the truths Capote has to tell about country life, love and loneliness with a kind of warm wisdom that only comes from the heart.

Unlike today's techno-savvy and techno-demanding children, Buddy is happy to tell stories, find a Christmas tree in the secret part of the woods, make home-made decorations out of paper & tinfoil, string popcorn & cranberries, and bake fruitcakes to deliver to neighbors and send to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- all in the company of his best friend and playmate, the guileless and ingenuous Sook [and their dog Queenie].

Buddy lives with Sook and two other middle-aged cousins -- Jennie [Carolyn Mignini] who runs the family business and is the realist of the group, and Seabon [Rodney Clark] a kindly but timid soul who has never acted on his dreams or desires. They are concerned that Sook is a hindrance to Buddy's maturity, and Jennie wants to send him to a military academy so he can grow up with traditional male influences. -- Thus, their idyllic life in flying home-made paper kites is threatened.

And there are outsiders too: tomboy Nell Harper [Lizzy Woodall at the opening performance], Buddy's "neighbor and worst enemy", constantly taunts the boy and "double-dog-dares" him to demonstrate courage; and Haha Jones [Rodney Clark in the second of three roles in all, the other one being Farley Wood, the nosy postman] is the beligerent supplier of whiskey needed for the fruitcakes, and whose gruff manner belies a hidden kindliness.

This gem of a play doesn't have big production numbers with a cast of thousands, nor does it have the glitz & glamor of fancy costumes and sets [all of which have their place in the likes of blockbuster musicals]; but it makes up for it by enthralling audiences in allowing them to connect with the hearts of its characters, and it entertains us with a rustic charm both visual and thematic.

Songs like the ragtime "Alabama Fruitcake" are irresistably engaging, and "Mighty Sweet Music" has the cast accompanying Tom Griffin's peppy pit orchestra on-stage playing spoons, lemonade glasses, washboards, and Jews-harp capture the essence of simple down-home energy. While Anna's "Detour" describes her past, and Seabon & Buddy connect touchingly with "Stars to Guide" them.

Whether it is possible to never grow up like Peter Pan, we might all prefer to remain young forever like Sook. And though time has a way of challenging us in many ways, and death is inevitable, we can all have an influence on one another. As Sook says: "Just because a person dies doesn't mean they're gone...just moved on to a better place."