VERSAILLES — Knowing the back story of Woodford Theatre's world premiere of the holiday production A Christmas Presence, I expected a special evening of local theater.
After all, a huge cross-section of the Central Kentucky community was involved in bringing the production to its feet, from creative conception to practical execution. Thumbing through the playbill alone reads like a who's-who of the Bluegrass arts community.
I expected to experience lots of laughter and a general sense of the awe of accomplishment that comes from pulling off such a feat. But what I did not expect was the play to be so darn good in its own right.
No, it is not going to redefine the landscape of American stage drama, but it does have a shot at being picked up by other community theaters based on the appeal of its strengths: an array of colorful characters that community theater audiences can identify with; an air-tight plot with ample room for actors of every age, persuasion and experience level; and a Christmas message that is neither trite nor overwrought.
The premise of the play, written by Woodford Theatre artistic director Beth Kirchner, involves a community's determination to save the building where each year's production of A Christmas Carol is produced. This year, some of the residents want to do something different, a chorus or glee club. Others don't, and infighting ensues. The self-involved mayor declares he will sell the building before Christmas unless the community can agree on what kind of show to produce.
The plot hinges on one essential question: Will the show go on?
Events that ensue range from hilarious to sweet to goofy to troubling and back to hilarious again. The play's many characters each have a different personal stake in the show, and the interaction among these competing intentions creates the bulk of the play's interpersonal drama.
While it is easy to imagine The Christmas Presence being popular with other theaters, there is no way to replicate the uniqueness of its original production. For one, it is tailored precisely for the very Woodford Countians who regularly patronize and participate in the theater's shows. Even more artistically relevant is that Kirchner drew much of her inspiration and character development by collaborating with key local actors. Yes, these characters can be found in almost any community, but they share the creative imprint of their original makers.
As a result, most of the actors in the show are at the top of their game.
For instance, Woodford Theatre audience favorite Terry Withers holds nothing back as blinged-out, big-bellied, womanizer Tony. His entrance in the first act yielded a healthy round of guffaws during an opening weekend's performance that I attended.
Likewise, slapstick comedienne Melissa Rae Wilkeson joins forces with Karen Marsee as abysmal singing sisters who deliver their lines in a country dialect that's over the top but not too far from the truth (points for accuracy, ladies).
Actor and sometimes director Ross Carter turns in a brief but deliciously entertaining performance as Jacques, the ridiculously pretentious thespian who refuses to let go of his ambitious to produce A Christmas Carol, lest the neighboring Middletown beat them to it!
Kirchner's script lets her actors play without losing the cohesion of plot and forward momentum. In addition to allowing the usual stable of actors to dive into largely self-designed roles, it also builds on the special skills and talents of other community performers. That not only adds to the show's local appeal but cultivates an overall feeling of diversity and depth among the show's characters, creating an effective cross-section of modern-day small-town America. For instance, Kirchner built in a subplot about a deaf character and another who knows sign language based on actress Keara Beck's real-life work as an interpreter for the deaf.
Another feature of the play is 16-year-old Connor Hall's comical portrayal of an aspiring rapper and glee club founder who just happens to be able to do killer Elton John and Michael Jackson impressions, not to mention some slick boy-band dance moves.
Actress and choreographer Jenny Fitzpatrick, delightful in her role as choir director Helen, capitalizes on an opportunity to perform a beautiful ballet segment with Adam Fister's character (Thomas) that succinctly indicates their impending romance without a word ever being spoken.
The entire show appears to be assembled in this vein: a blending of the community's best elements in a cohesive, fun evening of theater.
It is important to note that such a marriage of disparate parts could make the show feel like a creative smörgåsbord of unrelated elements, an artistic Frankenstein. The play within a play that the faux community does produce is kind of like that, and hilariously so. But Kirchner's script, remarkably, maintains a ruthless connection to the plot, never allowing the flow of the show to veer into long distractions in the name of gratuitous fun-having.
With its local charm and solid artistic merit, The Christmas Presence is a must-see. It probably will satisfy the most casual theatergoer who just wants an escape from the stress of the holidays and the most discerning dramaphile. In other words, while this is a fun show full of energy and verve and rafter-reaching laughter, it is also grounded in the solid artistic structure of Kirchner's accomplished playwriting.