Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Cricket on the Hearth
Thirteen months ago, Mr. Zelevinsky gave us another world premiere at the same venue, based on Alexander Dumas' The Great Seduction. And like that splendid comedy (which was unveiledby the last pagesto be about the beginning of the French Revolution), there is also some gleeful sleight-of-hand involved in this new staging. "The Cricket on the Hearth" followed up "A Christmas Carol," coming two years later, and has likewise been adapted for stage, movies, and radio since then. Among the other memorable characters, it features a grumpy, Scrooge-like old man, crushing everyone in his path. In spite of him, this new show manages to be heartwarming in every way.
Steve Callahan directs, and the magical set is by George Shea, Marjorie Williamson, and Jacob Winslow: complete with curling, cascading storybook pages as back walls; and another scene that unfolds out of a very large storybook just off stage right. West End Players Guild doesn't give up an inch to the holiday competition in this production. Everything about this 100-minute Christmas play measures up to the best in town.
Gracie Sartin (the ingenue in The Great Seduction) is Dot, a young mother with a new baby, and Chuck Winning plays her middle-aged husband John Peerybingle, a mail carrier. Likewise, grumpy old Tackleton (who owns a scary toy store) has managed to convince a young woman named May to marry him. Kent Coffel and Mary Tomlinson occupy those roles very nicely. But near the outset, Peerybingle has, by random chance, given a ride to an old man (or someone, wearing what appears to be a comical disguise), and that mysterious Stranger (Kellen Green) is given lodging for the night, just before Christmas.
The emotional center of the piece resides in a tumbledown cottage in scene two, crowded with 19th century toys. No less compelling than Bob Cratchit's loving household are Caleb Plummer (Charlie Heuvelman) and his blind daughter Bertha (Samantha Hayes), though he has convinced her they are living in an elegant house with beautiful clothing for them both. These are not grandiloquent performances, but the effect is ultimately as satisfying. Dickens is justly remembered for showing that love makes life beautiful. And when he rips all that away, as he is wont to do, he towers above nearly every other storyteller in his own stark wisdom.
A cruel misunderstanding erupts right before intermission. And Peerybingle goes through jealous anguish after his wife appears to be caught in adultery. A dark and ponderous comic scene has him trying a succession of increasingly murderous weaponry to smash into the stranger's room. And in true Dickensian fashion, and what we might call true Zelevinskian fashion, the greatest gears of storytelling thrum quietly into motion, and the entire world is rearranged in the last five or ten minutes. It's all done with the same perfect pace and confidence we've learned to expect from director Callahan.
Great theater is like a kind of therapy, to remind you of what it means to be human on the deepest levels. This is great theater.
The Cricket on the Hearth runs through December 15, 2019, at West End Players Guild, Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd., just north of Delmar Blvd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.westendplayers.org.