Review: Miracle on 34th Street by Penfold Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs
Christmas and the holidays are a time for comfort. Jingle bells, tinsel on the tree, Santa Claus everywhere as image, in real life and in our imagination. We were far from the United States when our children were growing up, but we shared the joy and comfort of the season with VHS tapes of It's A Wonderful Life (1946) andMiracle on 34th Street (1947), both in glorious living black and white. I hadn't seen them before they arrived in the mail via diplomatic pouch. These days both films are probably running constantly as if on some endless loop, on cable and on Netflix.
I mention both films because Penfold Theatre staged Joe Landry's 1996 adaptation ofWonderful Life as a live radio play each Christmas season from 2011 to 2013. They put it in the Rice's Crossing Store at the Old Settlers' Park in Round Rock and had great success. In the ALT review I noted that the 2013 production was "an entertaining, reassuring and lively enactment, set in a simpler time."
You can't keep doing the same thing forever (except perhaps at the Zach Theatre, where they're continuing the 16-year run of Holiday Heros). Landry's version had been done earlier by Austin Playhouse, and now the Zach Theatre has instituted a one-man version of the film by charismatic acting wizard Martin Burke. Nathan Jerkins, who directed the three Penfold stagings of Wonderful Life, was inspired to apply the same format to Miracle on 34th Street, done as a radio play in 1947 and again in 1954 by the Lux Radio Theatre. After checking with a lawyer about copyright considerations, Jerkins crafted a five-player version with a staging similar to those of Penfold's earlier holiday presentations.
It's a lot of fun, and like comfort food, the Penfold Miracle on 34th Street gives you both the warm, drowsy feeling of an ample familiar holiday meal and the reassurance that some sentiments -- perhaps some truths -- endure. The story, for those few of you who haven't already enjoyed it, involves a kindly old bearded gentleman from a retirement home who happens to get recruited to be the Macy's department store Santa Claus. He alarms the woman executive at the store when he placidly insists that he is Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle.
Miracle is less about delusion than it is about hope and illusion. The fundamental story is that of the divorced executive's young daughter, who's been admonished that she must live in the real world and that there is no such thing as Santa Claus. The plot twists of the film -- precisely mirrored in the radio versions and in Jerkins' adaptation -- don't exactly disprove that contention. But they do soften hearts, raise up the innocent, gig the commercialism of the season, and provide a thoroughly happy ending.
It's hard to judge the art of Jerkins' adaptation and direction, because both the script and the performances seemed to stick very close to the film version. The lively cast of five hits its marks, evokes a multitude of other characters, moves in neatly choreographed moves across the stage, and periodically surprises and amuses us at the Foley table. Esteemed veteran Dirk van Allen has a measured Clausian presence, and Joe Hartman fills the moderator post confidently (one amusing bit has Hartman arguing with himself as both the Macy's president and a sniveling psychologist employee). Debonaire Brock England is the benevolent next-door bachelor who becomes a sponsor for Kris Kringle and, initially, a surrogate for the fatherless Susan, played by Julie Linnard.
One sometimes confusing aspect of the casting is that Sarah Marie Curry (as Doris Walker, the executive) and Linnard (playing her daughter) closely resemble one another physically. That works for the mother-daughter link, but when one or the other temporarily steps into a subordinate role (the judge in Kringle's sanity trial, for example, or the deputy prosecutor) the aural differentiation by tone and accent is clearer than the visual difference presented to the audience.
Joe Hartman, Sarah Marie Curry, Dirk van Allen, Brock England (photo: Kimberley Mead)
Perhaps previous successes have had unintended consequences. Penfold staged Wonderful Life at the adjacent Rice's Crossing Store, a chilly and cramped locale with plenty of flavor and immediacy. This year they've moved into the Old Settlers' Hall, which can accommodate larger audiences. It resembles a high school gymnasium. The cast appears on risers before black drapes. The lighting is minimal and poor. Those factors detract from the experience and diminish the impact. Lighting was clearly a problem for van Allen as Kris Kringle, who squinted and twisted his script to make out his lines. Other cast members, in their 20s or 30s, didn't have the same difficulty. They'd memorized their parts and mastered the required shifts of character.
Embracing the message, however, we're all happy to enjoy this recasting of the admired American fable. Miracle on 34th Street runs through December 27, taking a brief a pause for the Christmas holiday itself.
3300 East Palm Valley Blvd.
Round Rock, TX, 78664
December 4-27, 2014
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm
Matinee performance on Saturday, December 20th at 3 pm
No performance Thursday, December 25th
$25 Regular, $23 Students, $23 Seniors (age 60+)
More information available at www.penfoldtheatre.org