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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

NicholasOpen Window Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of A Count Up to Christmas, Striking 12 and A Servants' Christmas

Annie Birkholz and Jeremy Stanbary
Photo by Mathew Berdahl
With Nicholas, Open Window Theatre gives birth to a stirring holiday-season play that explores the origins of one of our most beloved myths, that of St. Nicholas. Of course, from St. Nicholas it is just a flying reindeer's leap to the even jollier myth of Santa Claus, and from there to unleashed generosity and gift giving, and on to rampant shopping and Black Friday, and finally to one of the foundational elements on which the American consumer economy depends: holiday spending.

But wait, dial back to the first link in that chain of mixed blessings. The real Nicholas (and yes, there was a real Nicholas) lived in Asia Minor where he was Bishop of Myra in the third and fourth centuries and had no intention of fueling an economic engine. His intent was to give away his wealth, and then to inspire those who had more than enough to give their surplus to those facing destitution. Moreover, he endeavored to do so anonymously, stirred only by the tenets of love and charity gleaned in his upbringing as a Christian during the latter centuries of the Roman Empire, a time Christians were still viewed as a traitorous cult.

Nicholas, written and co-directed (with Stephen O'Toole) by Jeremy Stanbary, takes the scant facts known about the real Nicholas, along with the account of his life passed on orally from generation to generation until recorded centuries later, and embellishes these with a fictionalized context in which his great work occurs. The result is a well-honed, powerfully presented play that draws us to the beliefs and behaviors that lie at the core of the frenzied holiday season we know today. It is both stirring and entertaining–the latter attributable to excellent staging, solid performances, bits of eye-winking contemporary references that sprinkle humor throughout, and beautiful music, both recorded, playing during scene transitions, and performed live by an outstanding young actor named Annie Birkholz.

The play opens at a slave auction as a loathsome auctioneer uses his swaggering presence to pump up the bids being made for a young girl named Sophia. We are given short, alternating images, first of the leering auctioneer summoning up the worst instincts in men, then of the innocent girl singing "O Come, O Come Emanuel," an urgent appeal for a path to redemption from a life in bondage. After the two conflicting images meld, a hooded stranger appears and outbids the others to win the slave girl. Only, as we suspect from the start, he has not paid to have her as a slave, but to purchase her freedom, for he is Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Until recently Nicholas had been imprisoned, along with other Christians, for refusing to pay tribute to the emperor in Rome, which they viewed as making a sacrifice to an idol. Freed after the installation of Constantine as emperor, Nicholas is on a mission to secure the girl's freedom, using the last bit of his inherited wealth to do so.

The play veers back and forth between Nicholas' childhood, as he acquires values and inspiration to devote his life to doing charity and providing haven to those in distress in Jesus' name, set apart from friends who are adherents of the Roman pantheon of gods, and his current project, to win over the girl Sophia and inspire her to choose the path of mercy and charity for herself. In do doing, Nicholas' past and present come together in a way that is wholly satisfying dramatically. This construct is the fiction of the piece, yes, but it works well as a platform to reveal the nature of Nicholas and his legacy of pure generosity. The fictionalized elements provide a context to include the story of the three dowries to be related. According to the legend, Nicholas saves three impoverished sisters from being sold into slavery by anonymously providing sufficient wealth to make a dowry for each of them. And how is the wealth provided? In the dark of night, Nicholas tosses coins through their window, the coins landing in the sisters' stockings, hung up to dry.

Jeremy Stanbary has a wonderfully charismatic presence as Nicholas, ably conveying the spectrum of emotions, from beatific peace to righteous anger, to empathic sadness, that punctuate the bishop's life. As the young Nicholas, Stanbary's own son, Augustine Stanbary, makes his debut in a mainstage Open Window production, having previously appeared in some of their youth theater programs. The younger Stanbary impressively depicts Nicholas' capacity to make sense out of his very difficult life, and to find meaning by following a spiritual path. Jeremy Darling plays both the slave auctioneer and Erasmos, father of the three dowry-deprived sisters. Darling creates vivid characterizations of both these deeply flawed men, with Erasmos having more depth as his character goes through a significant transformation.

Annie Birkholz, in addition to singing beautifully in the opening, imbeds Sophia with fiery independence, keen curiosity and the capacity to accept change. She also plays young Nicholas' friend Zoe, conveying arrogance born of her family's extreme wealth and privilege. It is an impressive performance from this young actor. Another young actor, Wyatt Darling (the son of Jeremy Darling), appears as Nicholas and Zoe's friend, Kyros, and as Cyrus, the younger brother to the three sisters, who rails against his father's plan to sell the girls into slavery. Sarah Stanbary completes the cast, portraying Zoe as a teenager who has learned that wealth and privilege can be lost just as they can be gained, and as a much older Zoe, able to use the lessons learned in her life, to follow Nicholas' path of generosity and mercy. The cast appears to be a family affair, with six actors and three surnames, but everyone on stage delivers a performance that earns them the right to be there.

The physical production given to Nicholas is excellent. The flexible performance space is arranged in a thrust formation for this production. Nate Farley's beautifully rendered scenic design, including a stunning mosaic patterned floor that incorporates symbols identified with Nicholas, is splendidly augmented by Jeremy Stanbary's projections. MaryBeth Schmid designed the costumes, which feel appropriate to the time period of the play and are effective in helping to tell the story. Olivia Lundsten's attentive lighting design and Jeremy Stanbary's sound design (the man's talents are abounding) are both well attuned to the needs of the play.

With so much to admire in this play and its production, I have a quibble with the accent Jeremy Darling employs as the auctioneer. None of the other characters speak with accents, so why does he? Perhaps the intent is for the auctioneer to be seen as an outsider, maybe a Roman fortune hunter, come to exploit those in the outer reaches of the empire. That point, if that is the point, seems extraneous, and the accent sounds Mexican, which in any case, is a distraction. There, quibble noted.

With a host of holiday themed theater productions to choose from, there are many that give a boost to the cheer and bubbliness of the season, and that is all well and good. Who doesn't welcome cheer and bubbliness? There are some that dig into the elemental values that sustain the season. A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas come to mind. Nicholas feels like a unique offering that delves into the very origins of the spirit that animates practices and beliefs we may take for granted, recalling that Nicholas risked his life to act upon these practices and beliefs. At the same time, Nicholas entertains and delivers high quality work by all involved. For me, as a Jewish theatergoer, it offers some new insights, but I would hazard a guess that many Christian theatergoers would also learn – or at least be reminded of – the fundamentals that gave rise to all we celebrate this season.

Nicholas runs through December 29, 2022, at Open Window Theatre, 5300 S Robert Trail, Inver Grove Heights MN. Tickets: Adults - $30.00, Seniors (65 and up), Students, Military and Clergy - $28.00; Children (ages 4 – 6) $20.00. Ticket prices include a $2.00 service fee. For tickets and information, please visit or call 651-647-4315.

Playwright: Jeremy Stanbary; Director: Stephen O'Toole and Jeremy Stanbary; Scenic and Props Design: Nate Farley; Costume Design: Marybeth Schmid; Lighting Design: Olivia Lundsten; Sound and Projections Design: Jeremy Stanbary; Stage Manager: Kathryn Humnick; Producer: Jeremy Stanbary

Cast: Annie Birkholz (Sophia/Younger Zoe), Jeremy Darling (Auctioneer/Erasmos/Beggar 1), Wyatt Darling (Kyros/Cyrus), Augustine Stanbary (Young Nicholas), Jeremy Stanbary (Nicholas), Sarah Stanbary (Teen Zoe/Older Zoe/Beggar 2).