CAPTURING THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT: ‘The Greatest Gift’ is original and moving, without drifting into Hallmark territory
TheatreNOW opened their holiday show, “The Greatest Gift,” by Zach Hanner last weekend. The story behind the show is almost as intriguing as the show itself. Hanner drew upon events in his family, surrounding his brother-in-law’s illness, which led to Hanner’s wife, Dagmar Cooley, donating a kidney to save her brother’s life. It is powerful material, to say the least. Hanner serves as TheatreNOW’s artistic director, so, consequently, the show is shaped with a dinner-theatre audience in mind. The action largely takes place around the holidays and food (drinks, family meals, etc.) over three successive years, which creates three acts for dinner service.
And what a dinner service it is! Holy cow, it is like Thanksgiving came early!
Chef Denise Gordon reminds us what makes holiday meals so wonderful—and so filling. The sweet-potato bread stuffing and cranberry relish alone are worth the trip. For me, the highlight was the veggie dumplings in tomato sauce. It’s like everything to love about dumplings and ravioli combined. The steamed seafood in paper was fun and delicious, as diners get to unwrap it from the container, then warm lemony, buttery steam entices all the senses. The herbed rice and shrimp are pleasing, but the discovery of scallops is like finding an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking.
For Connor Preston (Henry Stachowicz), the Christmas stocking is of paramount importance. He is just turning 13 and is obsessed with Christmas presents, especially all that is digital in the land of potential gifts. His mom, Isla (Eleanor Zeddies), and dad, Ted (Mathis Turner), dote on their only child, but wouldn’t mind if the grandparents could scale back the battle to buy Connor’s love. Grandpa Glenn (Skip Maloney) especially goes overboard buying every single item on Connor’s wish list. Though Connor obviously enjoys the present onslaught, he is just as fascinated by the attention of his grandparents and Uncle Evan (Hal Cosec), who he clearly worships.
Cosec’s Evan is a debonair, sophisticated and very successful man, who has his life in order. But it is clear something is bothering him, from the moment he walks onstage. His sister is curious, but also distracted by trying to get a big family holiday meal organized. Drinks, food, and a mound of present-opening proceed storytime by the grandparents. Sharon (Marie Chonko), Patty (Elizabeth Michaels) and Sam (Kent West) join Glenn in reminiscing about everything from fax machines to first jobs.
Sharon and Glenn are after my own heart with their admiration of life before Facebook and emojis. Chonko’s monologue about taking a moment to actually pray, instead of clicking on a set of praying hands was a good call to action for those of us who have become complacent in the non-communication of the digital world. Vest and Maloney embody dueling patriarchs who try to one-up each other (in a friendly way) with stories of past glory or humorous learning experiences. The grandparents get most of the jokes, like Maloney’s rendition of Beyoncé and West accidentally dropping a drug reference in front of the grandchild (oops!).
For all the reminiscing and corny stories of the grandparents (which is very fun to watch), the script is really a love letter from Hanner to his wife. At every turn Mathis Turner, who plays the character inspired by Hanner, is praising Isla’s (Zeddie’s) work and accomplishment to all who will listen. He can’t take his eyes off her. When she announces she is going to donate the much-needed kidney to save Evan’s life, the complex emotions of admiration, concern and resignation (because he knows her mind is made up and nothing will dissuade her) consume him. Though Isla’s donation and Evan’s need are the crux of the show, what the script attempts to explore in addition is power of family when the need is greatest. Truly, each performer embraces and communicates as much is true. However, Cosec’s rendition of Evan trying to navigate these unknown and terrifying waters is palpable. When he and Zeddies get to be alone together onstage, the intimacy of a shared lifetime is fun and beautiful to watch. Neither overplays their hand, but it is their subtlety and comfort with each other that makes it believable.
It is hard to find a new spin on holiday entertainment. So many “Christmas miracle” movies, plays and stories seem like a Xerox of Xerox, and so it’s easy to get discouraged trying to envision a different take on the genre. But Hanner shifts focus from an isolated miracle to one on a family, and what the power and strength of love can make happen, even in the face of immense and terrifying struggle. There really are no subplots; Hanner has chosen to focus clearly and specifically on one story and family. But all performers commit to it with an intensely believable dedication.
Facing a family illness is scary under the best of circumstances, but at least they know they are in it together. Hanner is clearly close to the material, and though there are moments of humor, it is primarily a serious look at what family means when needed most. It is heartwarming in all the right ways, without drifting too far into the land of Hallmark.
So, in a way, TheatreNOW has captured the holidays, good food, good family, and grandpas telling bad jokes. It’s a fun way to spend an evening with friends around the table.