Every year at the holidays there’s that dreaded moment when arriveth those banes of human existence: the holiday fruitcake, the overtly and overly sentimental stories, and regional theater productions involving elves, animals and urchins (preferably orphans) that threaten to put a sprig of holly straight through a cynical theatergoer’s heart. Amazingly, although it includes all of the above, New Rep’s offering this year is a happy exception, that surprise under the Douglas fir that delights one mostly because it was so unexpected. Based on two much beloved and largely autobiographical Truman Capote short stories based on his own Alabama childhood, “The Thanksgiving Visitor” (1967) and “A Christmas Memory” (1956), and televised several decades ago with an incandescent performance by Geraldine Page, the basic story is hardly an unfamiliar one. The current version is called “Holiday Memories”, as adapted for the stage by Russell Vandenbroucke, and, yes, there is fruitcake (consider yourselves aptly warned) and sentiment (but not sentimentality), an orphan of sorts (more or less “posited”, as Capote wrote, with non-adoring relatives), and a dog. (More about that dog later). But it has much more than that; in what might very accurately be described as the true spirit of the holidays, it’s about life in the country in the Depression of the 1930’s, friendship, and the joy of giving; what keeps it from curdling is that it’s also about loneliness and loss.
The story is a simple one wherein two social outcasts, seven year old Buddy (played convincingly and uncloyingly by New Rep newcomer Michael John Ciszewski) and his older cousin and best friend Miss Sook (warmly enacted by frequent New Rep contributor Adrianne Krstansky) prepare a turkey-centric dinner for the immediate world, collect fallen pecans and buy whiskey for said fruitcake, and make one another their annual favorite Christmas gifts, kites. As directed by Michael Hammond in this production, also featuring a narrator named Truman (Marc Carver) and two actors playing multiple roles identified as Man (Jesse Hinson) and Woman (Elizabeth Anne Rimar), one couldn’t ask for a more effective and less pretentious cast, most certainly including the aforementioned canine Queenie (per the program, played by Queenie herself). Attention must be paid to such a dog; rarely is an animal actor so well-trained, so well-behaved, so unobtrusively present.
The technical crew deserves very special mention. The Scenic Design as imagined by Jon Savage, is what would be worthy of Louise Nevelson if she’d grown up in Alabama, not only amazingly functional but visually stunning (with what fittingly appears to be pecan wood in flooring, walls and furniture). The Costume Design by Molly Trainer (appropriately based on the Depression era world of the South), and the Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and Sound Design by Edward Young all coalesce into a smooth telling of Capote’s tale, managing to cover a number of brief episodic scenes fluidly, also utilizing evocative projections. One scene will indelibly remain in this theatergoer’s memory: the nightlong vigil spent by Queenie guarding the Christmas tree with her gift, a huge five cent bone wrapped in the comics, sitting near the very top of the tree. (Queenie later buries her present where, as the narrator notes, she too will be “buried one year hence”). This team doesn’t strike a single false note, or bark, in telling Capote’s story.
What sets Capote‘s storytelling apart is its poignancy, its universality, and above all, its simplicity. Its morals are also true, usually as expressed by the also simple (in several meanings of the term) Miss Sook, (shy except in the company of complete strangers) such as “the only unpardonable sin is deliberate cruelty” and “I’ll always be here in your memories” and the disappointment of not being “able to give someone else what they want to have”. She also opines that “there’s never two of anything”, and her life surely perpetuated that theme. The way Capote expressed the moment of her death says it all: “When that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing me from an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven”. What could be more moving and seasonably warming than an evening spent with two such unforgettable kite runners?