Bittersweet Nostalgia

Beowulf Alley goes soft with an incomplete telling of Truman Capote's 'Holiday Memories'

Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, which prides itself on being "daring and distinctive," has gone soft for the holidays. Heartwarming, even. The company is presenting Truman Capote's Holiday Memories, which is a welcome break from the usual Christmas Carol/Messiah/Nutcracker fare. Unfortunately, the production is not all it could be.

Literally. Holiday Memories, adapted from Capote stories by Russell Vandenbroucke, is in two parts, one covering Thanksgiving and the other revolving around Christmas. Beowulf Alley has elected to present only the second part, which is called A Christmas Memory, and that makes for a very short evening--you're out in less than an hour.

Less literally, the production is not all it could be insofar as it lacks the free, easy flow of true memories. It might be tightened up later in the run, but on opening night, the seams showed.

The play is derived from Truman Capote's prose reminiscence of one particular Christmas during the time when, as a 10-year-old, he'd been sent to live with distant relatives in tiny Monroeville, Ala. Most of the relatives were not especially child-friendly, but for the most part, they could be ignored, because one among them, an aunt called Sook, turned out to be the best friend a lonely boy could have.

In A Christmas Memory, Miss Sook--whom the adult Capote calls merely "my friend"--is a sweet, vital, rather childlike woman in her 60s. She's never traveled more than five miles from home, and her reading is limited to the Bible and the funny papers, but she possesses a great deal of practical knowledge. And she sees as much adventure as does young Truman, whom she calls Buddy, in setting out on foot deep into the woods to chop down a Christmas tree twice as tall as a 10-year-old boy, then hauling it home in an old baby carriage.

This is a story about two people who bond despite the vast difference in their ages and ambitions; it's a sweet, ever-so-faintly melancholy memory of people making a holiday by hand in the depths of the Depression, people whose idea of a festive Christmas breakfast includes flapjacks and fried squirrel. Yet Capote (and adapter Vandenbroucke) don't wallow in the sentimentality; they're fondly aware of how odd this child and his aunt/friend are.

The adult Capote would go well beyond "odd"; he became a fey, pretty party boy who wrote about lonely young women and cold-blooded killers. But A Christmas Memory is a model of its genre, the lyrical prose making its effect not through arcane vocabulary or provocative imagery but through the artful arrangement of fairly simple words. At Beowulf Alley, that narrative is delivered by Jeff Scotland as the adult Truman. Scotland adopts a Southern accent but thankfully doesn't attempt a Capote impersonation, which would be best left to a John Waters sort of Christmas memory. Scotland presides over this affair with real affection.

Glenda Young is equally fine as Miss Sook. Avoiding Granny Clampett caricature, Young neatly conveys the easily bruised joy and innocence and essential strength of the character. When she comes out and utters the usually dreaded words, "Oh, my! It's fruitcake weather!" you know something good may actually come of it.

The young Buddy is often played by an adult, but here, the role is taken by an authentic sixth-grader, the enthusiastic and likable Will Bostwick. This means we don't have to suspend our disbelief while watching a grown-up cavort on stage; the trade-off is that a kid actor hasn't yet developed the pacing and precision to match his adult counterparts.

And pacing is the overall problem with this production. Director Carol Calkins, who usually seems incapable of doing anything wrong, seems to have thoroughly rehearsed little nuggets of scenes, but hasn't gotten her cast to meld those nuggets together. Oh, we have Martie van der Voort on stage playing the guitar all the way through and making other worthy contributions, but she can't smooth out the transitions alone. Calkins has lots of things happening within each scene, but she hasn't unified all those scenes over the course of the evening. A show like this should consist of little moments that knock into each other as quickly and freely as a collapsing row of dominoes, but what we have here is more like tiles dutifully laid out on a Junior Scrabble board.

Even so, this production of Holiday Memories drew sniffles from a few opening-night audience members by the end. Bittersweet nostalgia has that kind of power.

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