This year, Playcrafters Barn Theatre hopes to get you into the holiday spirit with “Papa’s Angels: A Christmas Story”. Originally a made for TV movie based on the book of the same name, the play follows a year in the life of the Jenkins family. Early on, Mrs. Jenkins dies, leaving Mr. Jenkins stripped of all music and joy and five children to parent alone. Wallowing in his sadness, he proves an unfit father, unwilling to invest much time in the lives of his children and making poor parenting choices that strip them of the joys of growing up, including Christmas. But, being a Christmas story, the spirit of the season is a lesson learned by the closing curtain.
The script is a very dark one, hardly an uplifting holiday ride. It possess an emotional depth somewhat lost on those behind Playcrafters’ production of the material and, therefore, lost on the audience. At one point, Mr. Jenkins once and for all shoots down the hope his children still hold for the possibility of a Jenkins family Christmas. It’s an emotionally abusive act that would very well negatively impact any child, but the audience laughed. I don’t think it was out of cruelty, however. Instead, I think the response was born out of the audience’s expectation of a happy Christmas story. And that’s why a performance that floats emotionally above the dark depths of the script could be considered a blessing.
Part of the reason the production is not as dark as the script calls for is that the children cast are having so much fun on stage. Their vibrant, often adorable performances are all too smile inducing to allow the weight of the material to fully fall upon the audience. From Sydney Crumbleholme’s exhuberant portrayal of the mute eldest child, to Alyssa Castro’s happily bossy tomboy to Laila Haley’s attention grabbing, adorably dramatic youngest child, it is a delight to watch these young actors perform, interact and pretty much just play on stage. It is these young actors, which also includes Andrew Hall and Katie Moore in equally vibrant performances, that instill a joy that’s not quite so prevalent in the script, but is a welcome lift to solidify the holiday spirit of the piece.
As for the script, I often wondered if it played better in a video format. There are events that are too abrupt, from the mother’s death to the son’s development of a stutter, to allow for an emotional connection to their implications. I was pulled out of the performance several times by the sudden revelation of something that wasn’t conveyed on stage, but instead was suddenly a part of the play. I tend to think a video production of the script would allow for observation of these transitions that are not directly in the script, but could be conveyed through visual performances.
Still, there are some truly beautiful moments in Playcrafters’ production, starting right after the proverbial opening curtain when Morgan Williams performs a song on violin. It’s a truly impressive performance from a young woman who has such excellent pitch at such a young age.
John Weigandt adds several beautiful moments while playing guitar and singing the songs his character wrote for his wife. His ability is of little surprise to anyone who’s enjoyed his work with Quad City Musical Guild, most recently as Horton in Seussical.
Paul Workman and Dustin Oliver also offer solid, impressive performances, proving their worth as actors, even in small roles.
While there are beautiful moments, there are also a few cringe-worthy ones, mostly due to technical mistakes on the night which I attended the show. From a music track seemingly played too early, and allowed to continue to play while Weigandt was singing, to a sudden, awkward and not too quickly corrected dip to black in the middle of dialogue, the technical aspects of the production could use some clean-up. As could some of the actors, whom it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on their lines. Some stumbled a bit on opening night, sometimes to distraction.
This weekend is your final chance to catch “Papa’s Angels: A Christmas Story” at Playcrafters Barn Theatre in Moline. Performances are November 13th and 14th at 7:30 p.m. and November 15th at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $10, available by reservation at (309) 762-0330 or through the theater’s website, playcrafters.com.