Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Holiday Memories"

Full disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

Artistic Director Greg Thornton's sensitive production of Holiday Memories [Russell Vandenbroucke's resolute adaptation of two Truman Capote stories: "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory"] features a solid ensemble of actors dressed in Danny Davidson's character-driven period costumes on Layne Holley's evocative theatre-in-the-round set, and is sustained by a haunting original musical score by Mr. Thornton, his son Michael Thornton, and Kim Wolfe.

The challenges of performing in-the-round are largely successful, with only occasional difficulty with vocal projection and deep shadows that obscure the actors faces. -- But the fine thing is the achievement of a natural and close relationship between actors and audience in this delicate celebration of the best aspects of human nature.

The two acts -- Thanksgiving and Christmas -- provide an intimate look into the lives of an unlikely pair of best friends: a young boy named Buddy [Max Zink] and his childlike elderly distant cousin Miss Sook [Fiona Macleod], whose poignant tales of love and friendship in the rural Depression Era South are narrated by the adult Truman [Cushing Phillips]. As they come to life in Truman's memory, Capote's elegiac prose is contrasted by the ordinary speech of his characters and their relationship with each other and the simple world around them, peopled by an assortment of relatives and neighbors all played by Sarah Looney and Michael Dilaura. The result is a sublime mixture that celebrates honesty, friendship, innocence, and morality in a poignant tale so befitting the holiday season.

As Truman ruminates, Mr. Phillips captures the subtle nuances of Capote's text and imbues them with a compassionate understanding of the love and loneliness of both Sook and Buddy, two outsiders from the greater world. His insightful interpretation brings them to life for us as he assesses his youthful frustrations with being called a sissy and taking revenge on schoolmate Odd Henderson on Thanksgiving Day, only to be gently reprimanded by Sook who, despite her "simplicity", instructs him that "deliberate cruelty is the only unpardonable sin". -- As in other episodes in this production, Capote's message is rescued from potentially overdone sentimentality by the honest performances of Ms. Macleod and Mr. Zink. There is hardly a moment that lacks credibility, so much that we feel these are real people who have known each other and lived together for a long time.

When, at the beginning of Act II, Sook announced that it is "fruitcake weather", we follow her and Buddy preparing fruitcakes for casual friends and some strangers [even President Roosevelt is sent one], bargaining with Mr. HaHa Jones for whiskey for their cakes, and getting drunk together on the remainder of the whiskey, only to be scolded by the older relatives they live with. -- As a grown-up, Sook is blamed for this outrage, and tries to come to terms with her own condition, calling herself "tired and funny"; but Buddy defends her saying "not" thereby securing their bond.

Their quest for a Christmas tree, accompanied by a little dog named Queenie, and making homemade gifts to exchange are accomplished with unaffected efficiency; their excitement over these heart-given presents allows them to comprehend that "God is in everyday things and everyday people".

Soon after, Buddy is sent away to school. He reminisces about this last Christmas they shared, and as word reaches him that Sook has died, he realizes that she is "an irreplaceable part of myself". -- Capote's message is loud and clear, and a fine way to usher in the Christmas Season.