Sunday, December 16, 2012

Wetumpka Depot: "A Very Second Samuel Christmas"

With playwright Pamela Parker in the opening night's audience, director Tom Salter announced A Very Second Samuel Christmas not only as the final sold-out show in the Wetumpka Depot Players' 32nd season, but also as its "World Premier".

This short play -- a scant 90-minutes including intermission -- follows the residents of the fictitious Georgia town of Second Samuel as they prepare their annual Christmas pageant to be performed for the first time in "a colored church": the "Rock of Ages Free African".

A second installment by Ms. Parker of her popular and prize-winning Second Samuel that the Depot produced to much acclaim awhile ago, it relies on the long-term recall/memory of the Depot's audiences to fill in the blanks about the assorted population of the town of 342 residents. Mr. Salter is most fortunate in having most of the 11-strong ensemble fitting easily into reprising their roles.

This new play retains much of the charm, gentle humor, and pathos of the original, but is still a work-in-progress. For the uninitiated -- and there were several on Thursday evening -- the script could benefit by the addition of some background details and references to its progenitor to catch them up on characters and relationships. [While most characters are largely unchanged from before, some of their names ("B-flat", "U.S.", "Omaha") need explanation. And despite the actors' total commitment to their roles, and their collective abilities to generate appropriate responses from the full-house, the admittedly engaging narrative stance of its central character is a mere substitute for more satisfying dramatic action.]

As before, the set is divided in half to accommodate frequent scene shifts : one side is the men's domain -- "The Bait and Brew" -- where they meet, play chess, and dawdle away the time; the other side is the "Change Your Life Hair & Beauty Emporium" where the women meet to gossip while having various treatments. At center is the entrance to the "Rock of Ages Free African" church, and closer to the audience is a tree-stump where B-flat narrates the homespun story.

It is some years after Second Samuel, and B-flat [Jonathon (sp?) Conner] -- a sensitive, simple, and slow young man who can predict the weather and is replete with facial and body tics -- has changed with the times; here, he is more confident than he was in the past, appears to have accumulated a lot of knowledge, and is more literate in expressing his philosophy of tolerance and of the essential goodness of mankind while quoting the Bible verbatim. Quite an accomplishment, and Mr. Conner remains faithful to making him the most convincingly rounded character in contrast to the stereotypes presented by most others in Ms. Parker's script.

Jimmy Deanne [Kim Mason] is still an impudent snob, despite Doc's [Brad Sinclair] claim that she is "softer than...appearances". When she is put-out at having "her pageant" plans ruined by the death of the preacher named "Wonderful Counselor", and by the storm-flood previously intimated by B-flat that destroys the church, Ms. Mason's brashness in the role makes her someone we love to hate. The rest of the fine ensemble support one another well, each with his or her individual quirks and issues that we can recognize as common recognizable traits.

When in Act II B-flat suggests that "everyone needs a miracle...[that] don't have to be flashy to qualify", said miracle shows up: the miracle in the ruined church -- the appearance of a bright light--the angel of the Lord -- ultimately brings all the play's characters together, who, despite their differences and conflicts with one another, listen to B-flat's recitation of the Biblical Isaiah's prophecy and of the later Nativity narrative, and conclude that B-flat's message of Christmas: "Believe and you'll see and be free" is one that can impact both the Biblical shepherds and modern people alike.