Chicago Theatre Review
Classic Stories for the Holidays
From the Heart – Citadel Theatre
Short stories by great writers are timeless and, especially around the holidays, can provide a welcome change from the usual fare about Rudolph, Scrooge, George Bailey and the Nutcracker. Audiences are familiar with O. Henry’s “The Gifts of the Magi,” especially to students who’ve studied this perfect illustration of dramatic irony in their high school literature classes. Less familiar, perhaps, but just as moving and meaningful, is Truman Capote’s beautiful, “A Christmas Memory.” Perhaps, because it was created from the author’s own personal experiences, this story, set during the Great Depression, speaks more profoundly to readers as the true meaning of Christmas.
Dramatized by local, first-time playwright Jessica Puller, and directed by newcomer Molly Mattaini, this is the professional theatrical debut for both young women. As Ms. Puller intended, the two stories, adapted from the works of two respected authors, form the focal point for this holiday work. Ms. Puller’s attempt, however, to create a unifying narrative, admirable as it may sound on paper, just doesn’t play as well as her adapted material. The playwright strives to make an observation that today’s youth demonstrate a blind devotion to materialism. So wrapped up in their electronic devices are they that they’ve lost touch with everyone around them. Indeed, Facebook, Twitter and other electronic obsessions seem to have replaced almost all live, personal interaction. Except for texting, reading and writing seem to be practically extinct these days.
In Ms. Puller’s play a young, nameless Boy spends every waking moment tweeting or slaughtering online zombies. He represents precisely what the playwright is criticizing. However, it should be pointed out, a child is the product of both his village and his parental upbringing. The boy wouldn’t be addicted to computer toys if his mother and father didn’t provide them and allow their unlimited use. While the boy isolates himself in a virtual reality his parents trim the Christmas tree, wrap the presents and prepare the meal; the boy does nothing to help them. All during this scene, it should also be noted, that the Father and Mother continually exchange snarky comments, which might explain the Boy’s need for escape.
Grandma arrives, but she turns out to be just as sarcastic as the parents. The Boy obliges her with a hug while asking for his presents. When the parents leave Grandma alone she tries to teach her grandson a lesson about gift giving. She begins telling him O. Henry’s famous story about young newlyweds, Della and Jim. Grandma stresses the sacrifices each character makes in order to provide a special Christmas present for his or her spouse. This story is nicely enacted by Brianne Duncan Flore and Ben Page, with Grandma Anita Silvert jumping in and out of the story, playing both the narrator and the shopkeeper who buys Della’s hair. By the end of the act, however, the Boy is neither moved nor enlightened.
Act II begins with Dad telling his mother-in-law that her story didn’t work because it was too old-fashioned and there was no one with whom his son could identify. He sends his Boy and the two women out of the room (to change costumes) while he begins Capote’s memory tale about his childhood Christmas. This particular play-within-a-play ultimately becomes the highlight of the production. Ms. Silver turns in her best performance as the elderly, fruitcake baking Friend of the young Boy, while the star of show, young Will Elliott, makes the young Truman Capote character real. Mr. Elliott is absolutely honest in his portrayal, earnest in his devotion to the woman who’s become a surrogate parent for him and completely filled with loving conviction for their joint cause. When Elliott and Silver finally exchange their simple, homemade gifts at the end of the story, a collective, well-deserved sniffle could be heard from the entire audience.
As the director of a new play, Ms. Mattaini is able to do only so much with the script she’s given. Tighter pacing, less grandstanding and more honesty from some of her actors, however, would help a great deal. However, this holiday production would really profit most from fewer scenes spent with the caustic, contemporary family and more time devoted to the literary characters and the wonderful stories they inhabit. Playgoers would much prefer to enjoy and savor the timeless words and thoughts created by two timeless writers. This is, after all, the heart of this play; everything else is just fluff.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 21-December 21 by Citadel Theatre Company, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-735-8554 or by going to www.citadeltheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.