Christmas has come early at TheatreNOW. The dinner-theatre venue has opened “Trailer Park Christmas” by Rachel Klem and Jeffery Moore to sold out shows. If you are looking for something a little different than the traditional Christmas story that still has a lot of heart and charm, this is it.
Meet the Dodson/Hussey family of Whispering Pines Trailer Park in northern Brunswick County (apparently, not the Whispering Pines in southern Brunswick County, which is a nudist resort). Meemaw (Ron Hasson) reigns supreme as family matriarch over a group of confused but well-meaning dreamers and their assortment of neighbors. She still is mourning the loss of her beloved husband (Craig Kittner), who died tying down their trailer during a storm in 1968. But her family provides some comfort and support, especially her grandchildren: Dale Jr. (Chris Lewis) and Jolene (Alissa Fetherolf). They might technically be adults, but they still fight like small children—usually with Jolene putting Dale Jr. in a choke hold.
Hasson has expansive experience playing makeup-and-wig-dependent roles. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the evening is that Hasson genuinely plays the character of Meemaw and doesn’t succumb to the one-note joke of the man in drag. Instead, we get a pretty understated rendition of an over-the-top woman who still is deeply in love and bereaved for her deceased husband. It’s the harder choice, but Hasson turns in one of his best performances to date.
Jolene probably is the most successful member of the family: She’s not only gainfully employed but has her “dream job” as a postal carrier. Her high-school football buddies (Craig Kittner and Kiré Stentson) drop by for a visit and replay the touchdown that won the big game, for which Jolene threw the pass. Balancing out all her over-achieving and being daddy’s favorite girl who hunts, plays ball and fights like a boy, is of course her brother, Dale, Jr. Conversely, he wants to be a professional dancer and choreographer. His audition tape for Julliard defies description, but let’s just say it is probably keeping Jennifer Beals (“Flashdance”) awake at night. Dressed in biking shorts and leg warmers (apparently, in all weather) Lewis stereotypically lisps his way through catharsis with his father and endless battles with his sister. He and Fetherolf balance and juxtapose each other well. Director Nick Smith’s eye for casting really nailed it with these two.
Meemaw still has unfinished business keeping her alive. Part of that is reconciling the differences between her family. They love each other but aren’t sure how to understand each other. Lewis’ dance number with his father, Dale Sr. (John Perk Perkinson), is slap-stick ridiculous but buoyed up with the truly transformative power of love and understanding. Actually, Perk’s embodiment of Dale Sr. is remarkably convincing. He truly loves is wife, played by Jaimie Harwood, but he is baffled by the events that have taken over his family and the inability to guide his loved ones through rough seas. Harwood, however, has the responsibility of trying to smooth everything out and hold everyone together. She struggles to make the holidays nice in the face of their eviction notice.
The lady at the table behind me, who commented that she grew up in a trailer, pointed out that Hardwood reminded her of her family peacemaker. They are visited by a host of neighbors, friends and unexpected guests all played by Stentson and Kittner, who clearly revel in this opportunity to show the breadth of their craft.
Stentson’s wig collection alone is noteworthy, as is her portrayal of the first Jewish person the family meets: a dance instructor displaced from Brooklyn. She has come bearing good news and an explanation of Jewish holiday traditions. Somehow she is also the only Jewish person in America who doesn’t eat Chinese food and go to the movies on Christmas, but we can’t all be perfect.
Honestly, I was expecting a one-joke concept that got recycled endlessly in “Trailer Park Christmas.” I’m more than thrilled to discover I was wrong: The script actually has a well-crafted and intelligent plot, coupled with character growth and development.
Not only is the show really well done—good script, solid performances—but there also is a wonderful set from Terry Collins of Scenic Asylum. He has put together a functional and realistic set, complete with terrible factory-issued paneling so common in single-wide trailers. A gun rack, Jell-O molds and Coca-Cola signs decorate the walls (I took the the hint by ordering a soda). It can be hard to create the feeling of crampedness that a trailer imparts, while still providing the actors enough room to move around and interact with each other. It is a similar problem to the set of “Friends,” which somehow had the two largest apartments that struggling young 20-somethings have ever inhabited in New York. But Collins and Smith do manage to yield the feeling a multi-generational family living on top of one another. As well, they still create enough space for the breakout moments of the story, like when the family flashes back to their talk-show appearance or Lewis’ dance number.
The dinner-theatre part of the show also is a win. The colder months herald the beginning of soup season, and chef Denise Gordon has got a hearty vegetable bean variety that is truly lip-smacking good, with a hint of herbes de Provence to carry the vegetables through. Alonside crab-stuffed flounder, the side of greens are perfectly crisp, so much so they could stand up on their own. I am a fan of tart cranberry sauces, and the orange zest gives Gordon’s receipe a nice kick. But Bitsy’s Trifle Cake took my heart. In red, white and green Jell-O layers, one filled with cake and separated by cream, it manages to look kitschy and taste fabulous. It reminded me of many desserts I have eaten in church fellowship halls over the years.
“Trailer Park Christmas” is much more the traditional Christmas story than first meets the eye. The script is surprising with strong structure, witty dialogue, touching moments and strong comedy to carry it. In the hands of a skilled director who accentuates the depth as a vehicle for the comedy, it really delights. The cast sells it with gusto, especially supporting members Kittner and Stentson. They are superb in their multiple roles. If you are looking for a laugh-filled new holiday tradition, check out “Trailer Park Christmas.”
Trailer Park Christmas
TheatreNOW, 19 S. 10th Street
Fri.-Sun., Nov. 28-Dec.21, 7 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.