Sunday, December 8, 2013

Red Door: "Papa's Angels"

The holiday season continues at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs with its production of Papa's Angels by Collin Wilcox Paxton, in which a Depression Era family from rural Appalachia is challenged by the death of Momma Jenkins [Valerie Sandlin] caused by "the consumption" (tuberculosis) to learn how to survive in the face of tragedy and rely on love and family to discover that the true meaning of Christmas lasts throughout the year.

Paxton's unabashedly sentimental script and John Roman's repetitive musical score are managed most credibly by Doug Stroup as Papa Jenkins, an idealized devoted husband and father brought to the edge of despair by his wife's death. Mr. Stroup's physical transformation from a shining iconic man to a distraught slovenly figure (and back again) is thoroughly believable; Mr. Stroup commands the stage with a strong singing voice and expert guitar playing. We believe him every step of his journey.

Peopled by experienced and neophyte actors, there is some unevenness in character portrayals and clarity of speech, but this does not detract from the appeal of the script's seasonal messages.

Ms. Sandlin's Momma is sympathetically drawn and her devotion to family so strong that we understand the universal grief over her early demise in Act I. Yet, her children -- with the gentle help of Grammy [Bonnie Paulk] -- are resilient and determined to celebrate Christmas with their father whose self-destructive behavior spurs them on to reclaim him and restore family harmony.

Chief among them is tomboy Hannah Rose; Emily Roughton is so matter-of-fact in her portrayal of this spunky kid, that we side with her unquestionably as she defends her brother Alvin [Thomas Dyer] from a schoolyard bully.

But it is mute daughter Becca [Charity Smith] who is the real rock of the siblings. She narrates the story in voiceovers [though this is not always clear, and ought to have been accorded more specific attention in staging]. Clearly the favorite child, she compensates her inability to speak by writing down questions and thoughts that Momma records in a book; Becca turns this into a diary, including entries under the heading "What happened since Momma died": loss of school, loss of church, loss of Christmas, and loss of Papa; things that to her "just don't seem right". When Papa reads these entries, he finally understands the predicament he has placed his children in and determines to reunite with his family.

Bob Wood's rustic set evokes the time period convincingly, and though director Kathryn Adams Wood's staging often verges on pageantry with its predictable tableau moments that tug on our collective heartstrings, Papa's Angels emerges as a thoughtful reminder of what ought to matter most at Christmas and all the year through.