Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A Count Up to Christmas is a parody of ham-fisted Christmas themed dramas–especially those made for television on Lifetime, the Hallmark Channel, and such. Typically, the lead character overcomes personal demons that threaten to make their holidays dark, part of the cure being a promising romance that the audience sees coming ten minutes in. Often there are contrasts between city and country Christmases: the former sparkling with flashing light displays, huge holiday entertainments, and miles of shopping opportunities; the latter offering hot cocoa around a fire, sledding on fresh-fallen snow, and the calm of Christmas shopping where you actually get a smile and a thank you from the owner-operator of a gallery, bookstore, or boutique. It is schmaltzy, predictable, and somehow gratifying, as it cozies up to our deeply instilled notions of what is wrong with Christmas and what it should be.
As the holidays approach, Caroline is hit by a double whammy–she is fired from her job in public relations for reasons that are at best murky, and is dumped by her fiancée Kimberly, two months before their planned destination wedding, for which friends and family have already booked plane tickets and the date for canceling venue contracts has passed. Caroline definitely is not feeling moved by holiday spirits, only by the spirits she guzzles from a jumbo-sized martini glass. Her BFF (that's "best friend forever," which in keeping with current stereotyping practice, is a gay man) Simon has just the answer: he gifts her a week-long stay at Valley Peak Lodge in Wannacutatree. The town is deep in the remote north, where Caroline can rest and regroup away from the strains of frantic city life. It also is a renowned fountainhead of Christmas spirit, so she will be infused–in spite of herself–with the healing power of holiday cheer.
Once there, Caroline encounters the characters who inhabit Wannacutatree. There is Mayor Chase Nulty, who weirdly alternates between being saccharine sweet and demonic; folksy innkeeper Mavis, with smashing cookie recipes and surprising world-wide connections; Sheriff Buck Sterling, meant to be a smooth blend of handsome hunk and gentle mannered nice guy–think John Krasinski–along with his eight-year-old deputy sheriff Reggie; Casey, who runs the coffee shop/bookseller combo and extends a warm welcome to avid reader Caroline; and Charlene, who seems to operates every other enterprise in Wannacutatree. Of course–for it is a staple in such stories–there is a problem facing the town that jeopardizes its very survival, and for which Caroline is uniquely qualified to step up and save the day.
The story unspools in ways that rarely surprise, yet–like the made-for-television movies it mocks–feels satisfying. Would we want things to go any differently? Not I. Caroline and the citizens of Wannacutatree are all likeable (with the exception of Mayor Nulty, who is too odd and controlling to cozy up to) and we want a happy ending for them. As is common to small-scale plays set in public spaces, there is the weirdness of having just the same seven people crossing paths constantly. Who else lives, works or shops here? There is a built-in explanation–with a pointed dig at corporate greed–for why the masses that usually descend on Wannacutatree have failed to appear for this year's Christmas festivities, but then, how did Simon learn about it? And why is an eight-year-old–albeit one who is exceedingly precocious and is given many of the best lines–deputy sheriff? The set-up asks us to suspend our disbelief, and we do so willingly because the whole undertaking is so good hearted, and because Caroline–especially as winningly played by Tara Lucchino–quickly feels to us like a friend for whom we want only good things.
The story of Caroline's transformation–you'll have to see the play to learn in what way she transforms–is sweetly told in about seventy-five minutes. The remainder of the ninety-minute-long production is taken up with mock commercials for upcoming episodes, following the trope of prime-time soap operas. These are mildly amusing. One would wish they were funnier in trade for the fact that, like real TV commercials, they interrupt the flow of the narrative. They do, though, contribute to the framing device of this being a send-up of one of those by-the-book TV dramas, fractured to make sport of their insipidness.
Tara Lucchino, as already noted, is wonderful as Caroline. She creates a sense of a genuine person with the capacity to feel hurt and experience change. All around her are stock characters that are bumbling comic foils, excepting Casey, played by Annick Dall. Dall gives Casey a thoroughly grounded bearing, making it little surprise that she, more than the others, are instrumental in Caroline's recovery from her case of Christmas blues. The others all are delightful in their goofy roles, with Derek Dirlam as the likable sheriff (and briefly as Caroline's heinous boss), Jane Hammill as Mavis, and Alex Stokes as both Reggie and Simon, especially appealing.
Liz Neerland–who, with Cragun, is co-director of Nimbus–directs this production, and her affection for the story and its players comes across. The humor in A Count Up to Christmas is fairly gentle–with few hearty laughs, but many lightly tossed chuckles and wit-induced smiles. Perhaps the guffaw quotient could have been ratcheted up with more physical comedy, but Neerland wisely maintains a focus on the humanity of the characters, emphasizing the warmth and sentiment of the piece. There are jokes about small towns and the frozen north, but never a feeling of disrespect for those places or those who inhabit them. Transitions are smoothly handled, as one would expect if watching this on the small screen at home, cuddled with a plate of Christmas cookies and cup of tea. Plus, Neerland depicts a Ferris wheel ride, sans any special effects or expensive set pieces, that is a total delight.
The physical production is impressive for a small scale, short-run undertaking, with several indoor and outdoor locations aptly depicted, including a Christmas tree farm and an operational sled run. Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli's scenic design is nicely lit by Jon Kirchhofer, and Jacob M. Davis has done solid work on the sound design. Rubble & Ash–the partnership of Andrea M. Gross and Barb Portinga–have done a fine job of costuming these rustics, with Caroline appearing in clear contrast when she arrives up north dressed for the heat of the city.
I cannot say that A Count Up to Christmas is a newly born holiday classic, but it is without question endearing, played out with warmth and humor. It balances a desire to entertain by poking fun at the host of similar stage plays, screenplays, and teleplays that have preceded it, with a genuine wish to leave the audience with a better stock of holiday spirit then they had walking in. That was certainly the case for me. I can also say that, while some of the humor may be over the heads of small fries, there is nothing in the play inappropriate for children. I hope Nimbus is able to bring it back in future seasons so that word of mouth and published reviews generate interest in adding this to the list of seasonal entertainments worth making time for.
A Count Up to Christmas, presented by Nimbus, runs through December 18, 2022 at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: sliding scale, $5.00 - $45.00. For more information and tickets, please visit nimbustheatre.org or call 612-548-1379.
Playwright: Josh Cragun; Director: Liz Neerland; Set Design: Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli; Costume Design: Rubble & Ash; Lighting Design: Jon Kirchhofer; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson, Assistant Stage Manage: Kelley Yount
Cast: Annick Dall (Casey), Derek Dirlam (Buck Sterling/Mr. Finkle), Mitchell Frazier (Commercial Narrator), Jeffrey Goodson (Mayor Chase Nulty), Jane Hammill (Mavis), Christy Johnson (Charlene Larch/Kimberly), Tara Lucchino (Caroline), Alex Stokes (Reggie/Simon).