VERSAILLES — Deep in the Sierra Nevada of 1850s California, two hardened miners are spending Christmas Eve alone in their mountain cabin when a knock at the door changes their lives forever. A distressed pregnant woman enters, and within an hour, she dies in childbirth. Her infant son survives, and the touching image of two rough men protectively cradling a baby marks the beginning of The Woodford Theatre's latest production, The Christmas Foundling.
With sturdy performances and a beautiful mountain setting by Patrick Maloney, the play is a rustic, heartwarming tale about the importance of family and how loving a child can forge unlikely alliances and transform lives.
Inspired by the California-centered short stories of 19th-century American writer Bret Harte, playwright Norman Allen has written a holiday classic that takes the audience back to simpler times while reaching forward to explore themes that are relevant today: What makes a family? Is it a strictly biological unit? Or is it social structure, born of whomever pledges deep love and responsibility for caring for one another?
It is sharing the bonds built in life rather than inherited by blood that takes center stage in The Christmas Foundling. After the mysteriously quiet Hoke has raised the boy, Tom, as his son for a decade, Tom's aunt shows up and wants to take him away to Boston.
Should Tom stay in the mountains with the only family he has known? Or should he leave to discover the biological family he has always dreamed about? Allen's plot and the fate of all the characters teeter on this decision.
Adam Luckey directs a cast of seven whose collective performance is not unlike the mining town of Piney Gulch: a little rough around the edges but full of admirable purpose and refreshing sincerity. Greg Jones brings gentle wisdom with a hint of mirthful charm to his guitar-accompanied narration and Scottish-brogued portrayal of patriarch Old Jake. Conway Poteet, Dylan Reaves and Bill Payne routinely provide comic relief in their roles as Boston, Georgie and Moscow, fellow miners named for their homelands who also become part of Tom's family.
As Tom, Joseph Waterbury-Tieman, a seventh-grader at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington, is clearly as at home on the stage as Tom is in the mountains. He brings the young orphan's emotional conflicts to life with impressive ease. He is perhaps the most engaging of all of the actors.
Shawn Reaves, as Tom's adoptive father, Hoke, has the unenviable task of portraying a character who keeps his emotions hidden by a stiff demeanor. He perhaps takes Hoke's defensive remoteness a bit too far in the first act, but the chill in his delivery begins to thaw when Hayley Williams' character, Aunt Sally, arrives in Piney Gulch. As time passes, Hoke slowly takes his guard down, shares his secrets and becomes a little more whole, a little more human. They all do, really. All because they loved a child. Isn't that the true meaning of Christmas anyway?
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.