Sunday, November 15, 2015

Millbrook: "Miracle on 34th Street"

A medley of Christmas songs greets the audience at the Millbrook Commnity Players' production of Miracle on 34th Street, the heartwarming chestnut of a play based on the 1947 film of the same name.

Though performances are a bit early on the calendar [this show closes before Thanksgiving, the day on which the action of the play begins and on which the Macy's Department Store's annual famous parade officially ushers in the Christmas season], director Stephanie McGuire's cast of twenty-two actors valiantly charms audiences with nostalgic reminiscences of times past, and gentle reminders that kindness, decency, and "believing in something when common sense says not to" can defeat the overblown hype and crass commercialism that threaten to ruin the Christmas season.

The opening night performance ran at a slow pace and a long two-plus hours that could be trimmed with more efficient scene changes and consistent energy from the cast. But this familiar tale is given an infectious merriment by its central character Kris Kringle [Sam Wallace], and its tried-and-true lessons that deserve attention.

Just as the big parade is about to start, Macy's "Santa" shows up drunk, and kindly retirement home resident Kris Kringle is conscripted as a substitute by Doris Walker [Karla McGhee], and winds up as the best department store Santa Claus ever. -- Mr. Wallace inhabits the role so completely, that it comes as no surprise that he convinces almost everyone he is the real thing. He's a "jolly old elf" who gradually convinces Doris's daughter Susan [Jaycee Parker is making her mark as an actress here] who has been taught by her mother that Santa is a myth.

There are the nay-sayers, of course, chief among them Dr. Leslie Sawyer [Shea Jackson], who crusades  to have Kris committed to a psychiatric institution by unmasking him as an insane and violent fraud. Ms. Jackson doubles [as most of the cast do] as a Bag Lady; her disguise renders her almost unrecognizable...fine work here.

There's also a love story: lawyer Fred Gayley [Michael Snead] is a neighbor in love with Doris, who, when he accepts Kris's court case endears himself to Doris and simultaneously helps Susan discover her imagination and belief in Santa Claus, thus winning Doris's heart.

We all know how it ends -- Fred wins the court case and Kris is named the one true Santa Claus, Doris and Fred are planning their marriage, Susan gets her Christmas present wish for a father and a new house...and audiences are warmed by the good will of Miracle on 34th Street.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

AUM: "Helvetica"

On a rainy Saturday evening when major football rivalries were being contested in both Auburn and Tuscaloosa, and when the performance was temporarily suspended when a fire alarm prompted Theatre AUM to clear the building, a small but undeterred audience was treated to an excellent production of Helvetica by Chicago-based playwright Will Coleman.

Winner of the Southeastern Theatre Conference's prestigious 2015 "Charles M. Getchell New Play Award", Helvetica's numerous episodes recount the title character's life as tracked by the three actresses depicting her -- at age eight [Past Helvetica: Danielle Phillips] when her mother died, as a grown woman [Present Helvetica: Amber Baldwin] on the day her husband leaves her, and in old age [Future Helvetica: Tara Fenn] on the day she dies. -- And Theatre AUM has the opportunity of putting its own stamp on a play that has of yet no conventional ways of staging and interpreting it.

Mike Winkelman's simple flexible scenic design allows the frequent time shifts to segue smoothly, and is accommodated by the narrator of Helvetica's story: a stuffed bear named Myron [Kodi Robertson] whose infectious innocence and knowing manner tempers the non-dramatic narrative sections. A kind of "Pooh-bear" confidante and adventuring accomplice who was Helvetica's "friend at first sight", Mr. Robertson inhabits the role so completely and credibly, that we trust him immediately to tell the story fairly.

At an uninterrupted 90-minutes, director Neil David Seibel's talented 12-member ensemble turn in truthful depictions of an array of characters who inform Helvetica's complicated life: parents [Kerry Jackson and Blaire Casey] who love and protect her despite having problems of their own, and from whom she learns to trust her imagination and yet remain a realist; a husband [Jay Russell] who seems at first to be an ideal match, but who can't grasp Helvetica's independence as she becomes a successful author of children's stories; a fan who becomes an unlike;y colleague [Samantha Blakely] who illustrates her books; her publishing agent [Grayson Dobbs] who encourages her to write again after a long dry period; a cancer patient [Haeley DePace] who is sympathetic to Helvetica's situation; her doctor [Intisar Seraaj-Sabree] who comforts her in her anticipated surgery; and an animal shelter worker [Cathy Ranieri] whose practicality is worthy of emulation.

Throughout this engaging production, we see how events in childhood inform the adult in all of us, that people often damage those they care for in an attempt to protect one another by avoiding unpleasant topics, and that there is a powerful impact in the various expressions of love for our fellows.