VERSAILLES — The actors and crew in The Woodford Theatre's production of The Christmas Foundling are in the rare position of working on a holiday show unknown to most people.
A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, Best Christmas Pageant Ever, we could go on, are all stories that audiences know and expect to see every year. But when the Woodford cast and crew have told friends the show they're in, they've had to explain it.
"I tell them it's about the most heartwarming Christmas show I've ever seen," says actor Dylan Reaves. "It's about family, and what that means, and education — it's about a whole lot of things."
Actor and musician Greg Jones says, "It's just a warm-hearted Christmas tale, and this is the right time of year for that kind of entertainment."
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Conway Poteet, another actor in the mostly male cast, likens the story to the 2003 movie Second Hand Lions, a coming-of-age story about a boy sent to spend the summer with his uncles in Texas.
"It's about how a child changes men into softer, gentler men," actor Bill Payne says.
As director Adam Luckey points out, there is something fundamentally Christmas-y in that.
The play by Norman Allen, first produced in 2001, was inspired by the short stories of 19th-century American author Bret Harte, known for his accounts of pioneer life in California.
The Christmas Foundling is set in the Sierras during the California gold rush of the mid-1800s. Old Jake (Jones) and Hoke (Shawn Reaves) are enjoying frontier and mining life along with a colorful trio of friends — Boston (Poteet), Georgia (Dylan Reaves) and Moscow (Payne).
On Christmas Eve, an unknown woman shows up at Jake and Hoke's door. She is in the midst of childbirth, but dies soon after a baby boy is born.
Hoke becomes a father to the boy, whom he names Tom (Joseph Waterbury-Tieman), and all the men have a hand in raising the boy.
"You know how Hillary Clinton said, 'It takes a village to raise a child?'" Jones says. "Here, it takes a mining camp."
A decade later, again on Christmas Eve, another woman, Sarah (Hayley Williams), shows up looking for her long-lost sister. The men quickly and reluctantly realize that Sarah is Tom's aunt.
Sarah is anxious to take Tom back to Boston and his biological family, but after over a decade together, the miners, and Hoke in particular, have become the boy's family. The dramatic tension lies in how the worlds will come together.
Luckey and all the actors cite technical director Patrick Maloney's set, with its ever-changing sky, as the play's eighth character and say it helps get them into the mood of the show.
"I look at it and say, 'I'd like to go out to the Sierras, play my guitar, watch the sunset," Luckey says.
Payne hopes there will be more opportunities for audiences to visit the world that Allen created in the play, saying, "Future Christmases, people may say, 'I wonder who's doing The Christmas Foundling this year.'"