Saturday, December 3, 2011

Red Door: "The Christmas Letters"

It does not matter what part of the country you live in, The Christmas Letters, now showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, will touch your heart and make you realize the importance of family at all stages in life.

Adapted from Lee Smith's novel by Paul Ferguson, with music & lyrics by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell, the story is told through a series of Christmas letters from 1944 to 1996, and is punctuated by numerous songs that carry the plot forward or comment on the action. What unfolds through the words of three generations of women is a poignant tale of family experiences we can all identify with -- births & deaths, financial need & prosperity, faithfulness & infidelity, war & peace.

In 1996, Melanie [Valerie Sandlin] picks up the tradition of writing the letters that her mother & grandmother had created, and she reads the first letter from 1944, taking us back to that time when her grandmother Birdie [Beth Egan -- strong and confident in the role, with a fine singing voice] started it all. Picked up later by her mother Mary [Anna Perry], the letters bring us back to 1996 by the end of the play.

We see the crochety great-grandmother Mrs. Pickett [Anne Brabham], Mary's devoted husband Bill [William Harper], their dutiful son Joe [Joseph Crawford], Mary's husband Sandy [Beau Shirley], and assorted family, friends, & neighbors...each of whom impacts the others and plays a role in developing their personalities and determining their behavior.

The songs -- played by the Lighthouse String Ensemble from Troy, AL [they also entertained with a pre-show concert of bluegrass music -- major talent here] -- are as engaging as the story. "Christmas Snow" sets an appropriate winter scene, "A Recipe for Living" gets us into the commitment of the family, "The Flood" evokes both the distress of flooding and the stalwartness of people under duress [as one character says: "Calamity can be a blessing in disguise."], "Mama's Death" helps bring the family together.......through all their trials over five decades, they still "try to get it right" -- and by the end, they do.

With a mixture of experienced and first-time actors, director Tom Salter has created a fine on-stage ensemble. Though the script could benefit from some attention to developing characters and smoothing out time-shifts, the story has been told clearly, and there are a couple of stand-out performances. -- Mr. Harper plays three roles [husband Bill, stuffy teacher Mr. Rutledge, and flambuoyant marriage therapist Peter Waterford], distinguishing each with voice and behavior differences. And Ms. Perry's development of Mary from a child to a middle-aged woman is so gradually developed that we hardly notice the changes; and her clear soprano carries many of the songs.

These are essentially good people who meet the family & social issues head on, and we leave the theatre feeling better for sharing with them.