by Samuel L. Leiter
Truman Capote’s semiautobiographical short story, A Christmas Memory, first published in Mademoiselle in 1956, would not seem the kind of material that would inspire dramatization. It is a heartwarming, elegiac work honoring Capote’s deep friendship with a distant cousin, Sook Faulk, who goes unnamed in his story; he writes that she was his closest friend when he was seven and she was “sixty-something” (the script, among other revisions, gives Buddy’s age as 10 to 12 for Buddy and Sook’s as 45 to 65). Yet the story, set in rural Alabama in 1933, during the heart of the Depression, has been the source of multiple TV versions and recordings, an opera, and two musicals, one (presumably) unproduced and the other now in a pleasant, pretty, but dramatically tepid Irish Repertory Theatre production at the DR2 Theatre, following its premiere four years ago at Theatreworks, in Palo Alto, California, with other productions in between.
Book writer Duane Poole uses the conventional framing device of having the Capote character, nicknamed Buddy (Ashley Robinson) by his cousin, now a successful writer, return in 1955 to his childhood home in Monroeville (unnamed in the short story), where he was raised by relatives after his parents divorced. There he meets the now aged black housekeeper, Anna Stabler (an excellent Virginia Ann Woodruff), who still lives there. As they reminisce, Buddy’s childhood memories come alive and he serves as an omnipresent narrator of his childhood experiences, enacted by Young Buddy (Silvano Spagnuolo), sometimes inserting himself as an unseen player in those events, but mostly watching and commenting on the boyhood he recalls.
The show uses nine characters, with one actor (Samuel Cohen) playing three of them: Young Buddy’s hypochondriac bachelor cousin Seabon Faulk, the scar-faced café owner Haha Jones, and Farley the mailman. Filling out the cast—in addition to Young Buddy’s dog, Queenie—are the two spinsters, Sook (Alice Ripley) and her everything-by-the-rules sister Jennie (Nancy Hess), a milliner; and Nelle Harper (Taylor Richardson), Young Buddy’s friend, a pigtailed tomgirl (who grew up to be Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird). Aside from Haha and Queenie, none of these characters, all based on actual people, is named in Capote’s story, although he alludes to “two relatives.”
A Christmas Story concentrates on the uncommon friendship between Young Buddy and his eccentric cousin, a woman old enough to be his grandmother whose pronounced childlike tendencies are balanced by a subtle, unappreciated wisdom. The limited action focuses on the pair’s efforts to gather the ingredients, especially whiskey (illegal at the time), to use in the preparation of fruitcakes, Sook’s specialty, which she bakes in large batches to send as Christmas presents to friends and strangers—including President Roosevelt and movie star Jean Harlow. Sook and the boy’s visit to the café of the scary Haha Jones, to obtain the liquor, provides a mite of tension, as does Young Buddy’s vivid recounting in song (“Buddy’s Midnight Adventure”) of his and Nelle’s mostly imaginary encounter with the same imposing figure. When Sook allows Young Buddy to share with her the remaining whiskey, Jennie and Seabon are so angry that they decide to break up the friendship and send the boy off to military school.
The sixteen songs, by Larry Grossman (music) and Carol Hall (lyrics), some with ragtime syncopation, are nicely performed, and a few, like “Mighty Sweet Music,” in which everyone plays the ukulele, are especially delightful. More songs and less text would go a long way toward giving the too talky A Christmas Memory the theatrical jolt it needs.
James Noone has provided a simple, if spatially cramped, unit set of a slatted rear wall fronted by a tree composed of similar slats, with a small window door to suggest someone speaking from a tree house. It is given expressive life by Brian Nason’s multihued lighting, while David Toser’s period costumes offer additional visual appeal.
Despite the presence of Tony winner Alice Ripley as Sook, a role in which—despite a gray wig and frumpy housedress—she seems too young, attractive, and normal for someone considered such an oddball, neither she, her capable co-performers (especially Ms. Woodruff), Charlotte Moore’s direction, nor Barry McNabb’s choreography can make this slow-moving, slender story maintain continual interest for over two hours. I’m sure that many theatergoers will welcome the show for its sentimental appeal, but I’m afraid it is already fading from this reviewer’s Christmas memories.
A Christmas Memory
101 E. 15th Street
Through January 4
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).