Kentucky’s rich literary tradition takes center stage this holiday season with Woodford Theatre’s production of A Kentucky Christmas.
Local director and playwright James W. Rodgers spent the past six months adapting the stories, poems and songs in the book of the same title, edited by George Ella Lyon and published by University Press of Kentucky.
A narrative patchwork of short stories and poems sewn together with music, the show features work by more than 20 Kentucky writers, including Jesse Stuart, James Still, Silas House, Anne Shelby and George Ella Lyon.
Woodford Theatre executive and artistic director Trish Clark says the show, which opened last weekend, has been a hit with audiences because of its heartwarming nature.
“It couldn’t have made them happier to watch some of those pieces,” Clark says of Sunday’s matinee audience, an older crowd that Clark suspects were moved, like her, by the nostalgic feelings that many of the pieces elicit.
“It is a little bit of a lost world we hopefully brought back for a little while,” Clark says.
But it wasn’t the original plan.
When Clark originally set the 2015-2016 season, she had planned to produce White Christmas, the musical. But when a national touring company snatched up the rights, the theater was left with a gap in its season. This has happened to the theater before, though, and each time the theater community steps up to respond.
This time, it was Versailles resident and retired University of Kentucky theater professor James W. Rodgers, who had already been tapped to direct White Christmas, who came up with the idea of celebrating Kentucky’s literary tradition this Christmas. He had bought the book years ago, and it was a family favorite during the holiday season.
“I started reading the book and picking out things that might work,” Rodgers says. “When I couldn’t find what I wanted, I went outside the book to other Kentuckians. Trish was good enough and had enough faith to let me work on it, and it became a labor of love.”
Rodgers adapted the stories and poems with a careful eye toward the authors’ voices, and he rarely cut or altered lines.
“One objective was not to make it mine, but keep it theirs,” Rodgers says.
Rodgers’ double duty as adaptor and director turned out to be crucial in shaping the show’s final form. The order of the many vignettes, and even who said what lines, changed during the course of rehearsal, and designers weighed in on symbolic elements in the show. The quilt pattern of the five-point star, for example, appears throughout the show in stories that are otherwise unrelated, underscoring a metaphor that Rodgers used throughout his writing and directorial processes.
“I tried to find a way of weaving those things together much like you would when working on a quilt,” Rodgers says.
Poems, songs, and shorter vignettes are woven throughout the show, but longer pieces serve as thematic anchors.
A few of the key anchor pieces woven into Rodgers metaphorical quilt include:
Jack Hunts Christmas, by Anne Shelby
Jack tales are a cornerstone of Appalachian folklore, which Anne Shelby uses as a playful, funny and ultimately reverent exploration of the real meaning of Christmas. In the story, Jack’s family is too poor this year to have a proper Christmas, so he and his brothers decide they are going to go to the North Pole to hunt for Christmas and haul it back home. When Jack’s brothers take off without him, their adventure goes awry, and they return home without Christmas. But Jack’s solo adventures end differently because of the kindness he shows others on his journey.
Christmas Comes to Lord Calvert, by Harry Caudill
Caudill’s Great Depression-era rural Kentucky courtroom drama is peppered with the kind of colorful, eccentric characters known to small-town dwellers. When the story’s protagonist, a lawyer with such a fervent flair for courtroom drama he earns the nickname Lord Calvert, decides to defend a seemingly innocent stranger who cannot afford an attorney, he does so out of Christmas charity, even though his own family is hurting for money this year. Turns out, kindness can be rewarded from the most surprising (and funny) sources.
Will Work for Toys, by Bob Rouse
A contemporary piece set in Versailles, Rouse’s story explores how one man is changed by a stranger. When Judd encounters a Mexican immigrant with a sign that reads “Will Work for Toys,” he decides to take him up on his offer, trading a few hours of splitting wood for Christmas toys for the man’s family. Driving him home to the neighborhood where the man’s family lives, he sees other children in need of toys, and his tough veneer is melted with generosity and hope.
Room, by George Ella Lyon
A modern retelling of the nativity, Room is about a young couple who seek shelter in a stranger’s barn when their baby arrives three weeks early. Despite their lack of money and even a home, the couple is overjoyed with the beauty of their child’s birth.
When She Came to Mercy, by Silas House
One day, a grandmother named Mercy who lives alone in the mountains encountered a frightened, cold and hungry young girl in the woods. The girl was kicked out of her house before Christmas by her preacher father for being pregnant out of wedlock. Mercy takes the girl in, who shares the same name as her own baby, who died many years ago. They strike up a warm relationship and even gather Christmas greenery from the mountains while looking ahead to the baby’s arrival in spring.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.
If You Go
‘A Kentucky Christmas’
What: Stage adaptation of Kentucky Christmas stories, poems, and songs based on the book A Kentucky Christmas, edited by George Ella Lyon
When: Through Dec. 20; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Woodford Theatre, 275 Beasley Rd., Versailles
Tickets: $20 adults, $13 students