Reviewed by Tony Annicone
The second show of The Players 108th season is “The Christmas Spirit” by Frederick Stoppel. Julia Dowling is about to die, at least to the mysterious stranger that visits her on Christmas Eve. But for Julia, 72 Christmases aren’t nearly enough, and she convinces Death to grant her a one day reprieve by inviting him to dinner with her friends and family. But the Dowlings aren’t the happy clan Julia leads Death to believe. As the day progresses, old resentments surface, new connections are made, and everyone, even Death, feels the magic of the Christmas spirit. In turns hilarious, tragic and deeply poignant, Frederick Stroppel’s “The Christmas Spirit” is a touching look at the things that really make life worth living. Director Joan Dillenback casts these 9 roles wonderfully, eliciting strong performances from her cast. They win thunderous applause on a job very well done.
The show contains many twists and turns that keep the audience on the edge of their seats after the visit of the Angel of Death on Christmas shocks Julia early that morning. She formulates a Christmas dinner of goose and plum pudding after Death tells her that he was on a first name basis with Charlie Dickens. Julia who lives with her daughter, Beth, creates this happy family scenario complete with imaginary children and the visit of her Catholic pastor, her sister Rose, her husband, Bernie, her son, Paul and his bimbo girlfriend, Melissa who is Jewish. The other two guests are Jack Frost (Death) and a suicide victim, Matthew. What will happen when Death finds out her charade? Will he enjoy Christmas so much that he lets her off the hook? Will a catastrophe in Pakistan make any difference? Joan keeps things in constant motion with topnotch pacing of lines and the dialogue crackles with intensity and brings the show to a satisfying conclusion.
The two leading players are John McKenna as Jack Frost and Cathy Fox as Julia. They both command the stage in their roles. John plays the part as a naive young man seeing Christmas for the very first time. He delivers a terrific performance in his debut at Players. I last reviewed him in a Marley Bridges murder mystery this past summer. Cathy captures the pathos and the panic stricken behavior of the woman perfectly. However this is not a heavy drama, so there are many clever comic lines in their repartee with each other as well as with the whole cast. Two other strong performers are Becky Kilcline as Beth and Marcia Layden as Rose. Beth can’t understand why her mother wants to celebrate Christmas with a dinner at their home. As she becomes aware of what is happening she joins in the festivities. Becky’s lines are excellently delivered whether comic or dramatic in nature. Marcia steals many a scene as the constantly complaining Aunt with various ailments including bursitis and constant nagging of her addled, absent minded husband. She is a hoot in this role. Rounding out the cast are Steven Vessella as Paul, Mike Pugliese as Bernie, Sally Horowitz as Melissa, Eric Ross as Father Brennan and Samuel Gelman as Matthew. I don’t want to give too much of the storyline away so not to spoil it for the audience members. So for a fantastic new Christmas show that isn’t “A Christmas Carol”, be sure to catch the 2002 play, “The Christmas Spirit” at Barker Playhouse. To become a member of this club, give Bill Applegate a call. Also remember the night shows are now at 7:30 not at 8. The new alterations to make the theatre handicapped accessible are also astounding.
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT (2 to 11 December)
The Players, Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, Providence, RI
1(401)273-0590 or www.playersri.org