It's a seasonal given that Christmas is at its best when it's a memory, preferably of some authentically rural place, at some earlier, distant time, when life was presumably simpler and families were close, eccentric and loveably decent.
In this case, the place is the Appalachian mountain country, the time somewhere before media and automobiles, and the family is made up of a crotchety but fair-minded Papa Tom, a good and plain-spoken Mama Sharon, and a sweet and unaffected daughter. The play takes place during that Christmas when Lynn, the daughter, will meet and get serious about Michael. They will eventually marry and give birth to Ryan, through whose memory we see these events.
The purpose of this recollection is to showcase a passel of sweet, and expertly performed, traditional mountain songs, along with familiar carols re-arranged in the "Sacred Harp" idiom. It also allows us to be introduced to these gosh-darn nice people, and their gentle and perishable way of life. There's nothing much here that you have to search deeply for, but it's a pleasant, earnest and modest entertainment.
Edd Key was dead-on as Tom, the papa and musical leader of the clan. Not only is he physically right for the part, with his short, tough, wiry body, balding hair and pugnacious attitude, but he's quite an excellent musician. The fact that his real-life wife, Therese Holmes, also plays mama Sharon adds to the believability and familiarity of their relationship. Ms. Holmes has a fine voice for traditional music, and harmonizes perfectly with her husband. Beyond that, she's direct and decent and embodies all those Walton Mountain virtues we expect from this milieu. Finally, Missy Luce, as the growed-up daughter Lynn, is perfectly delightful. She has big, doe eyes, a radiant smile and a charming, slightly shy personality. Along with her pure and enthusiastic singing voice, she has an unselfconscious engagement that both supports and enhances the other performers. More than anyone else, she seems like the natural and inevitable product of these people and this place.
The casting begins to have problems with the character of Ryan (Howard Stregack). While he's certainly affable enough, there's a bit too much of the M.C. about his performance, rather than a man sharing a treasured personal recollection. Beyond that, while he's committed enough to the ensemble, it never really feels like these people belong to him.
That lack of emotional conviction is even more pronounced and unfortunate with John Grange, as Michael. Badly mis-cast, this actor is far too contemporary, too urbane and too controlled to play the wild-spirited "hellion." Even more defeating, there is simply no chemistry between him and the daughter, Lynn. Never for a moment did I believe this was the first spark of a passion that would last for years.
Director Scott Nolte keeps the action moving, and there's a nice sense of the joy of shared music, but the play really fails to convince us that all of these people are inextricably connected by affection, as well as time and place. The set and sound design, by Mark Lund, is simple but evocative and well-finished.
"Appalachian Christmas Homecoming" is a kind-spirited, seasonal diversion. It's a welcome change from the overdone, overly familiar chestnuts usually roasted on December's theatrical fire. The story doesn't really work, but the music, with all its sincerity and unabashed pleasure will probably have you grinning happily as you leave the theatre.
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