In her curtain speech for A Kentucky Christmas, Woodford Theatre executive and artistic director Trish Clark referred to the show as a “celebration” rather than a production.
And what a special celebration it is.
The evening is a warm, festive, uniquely Kentucky affair, featuring a mosaic of short stories and poems by noted Kentucky authors that were adapted for the stage by director James W. Rodgers from the book A Kentucky Christmas, edited by George Ella Lyon.
Weaving music with by Kentucky literary luminaries James Still, Wendell Berry, Frank X Walker, Silas House and many more, the show is a playful but studied romp through the lens of the holidays as imagined by our region’s leading literary talents. The result is a theatrical patchwork quilt of Kentucky’s literary greatest hits, Christmas edition.
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If the stories are a patchwork quilt, the music is the thread that binds it together, softening transitions between vignettes and enhancing the show’s many emotional moments. Musical director Donna Bonner, along with many cast members who sing, and principal instrumentalist Elizabeth Yanarella, emphasized tunes with Kentucky connections, including John Jacob Niles’ I Wonder as I Wander.
Director James W. Rodgers deftly, carefully transitioned stories made for the page to the stage, and that’s a difficult task. You can hear the original author’s style and language in each vignette, but Rodgers’ stage direction infuses a palpable drama that makes it easy for audiences to quickly connect with characters.
The ensemble actors prove up to the task of portraying both character and narrator, often with narration fluidly hopping among multiple characters while retaining a unified narrative voice. This approach is particularly effective in the production’s longer pieces: Harry Caudill’s Christmas Comes to Lord Calvert, a hilarious Kentucky courtroom drama with a surprising twist, and Jack Hunts Christmas, an Appalachian folklore “jack tale” by Anne Shelby.
Performers also embraced the rare challenge of bringing poetry to life for the stage, creating characters that buoy short, powerful works including Barbara Mabry’s poem Expectant and Jane Gentry’s Red Taffeta Dress.
Rodgers was wise in his arrangement of the pieces, peppering humor, music and poetry among the show’s longer segments. It does run longer than many plays — about two hours, 45 minutes — but I cannot imagine cutting any of the pieces from the lineup, particularly because, like a good edited book collection, they are made better by their relationship to one another.
Thematically, the production builds to a crescendo with Silas House’s When She Came to Mercy, an achingly touching tale of mountain love and kindness that made me cry.
The audience’s tears and laughter are certainly owed to the writers’ words, Rodgers’ direction and the actors’ performances, but much of the cohesion of the evening, the sense that the whole evening was one journey was largely due to tightly unified design elements by scenic designer Russ Jones, sound designer Paul Manning, lighting designer Clifton Grimm and costume designers Robin Dickerson and Darlene Drayer.
The show takes audiences on a gentle tour of all the many emotions one might feel during the holiday season: humor, joy, expectation, kindness, mystery, sadness and mercy. To anyone needing a reminder of the best aspects of the holiday season, get thee to the theater and see this show.