Curtain Up: Making Memories with ‘A Christmas Memory’

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Indy Theatre Critic Tom Shelton, a professional actor who has worked locally at South Coast Rep and Laguna Playhouse, is in the cast of “A Christmas Memory” that runs through December 29 at Laguna Playhouse. This is his report on his experience. 

Two months ago I had no notion what I was going to be doing over Christmas this year.

And then, a casting notice appears: A new musical version of Truman Capote’s beloved short story “A Christmas Memory.” When? November and December. Where? Laguna Playhouse Who’s directing? Nick DeGruccio. We’ve worked together before.

But is there a part that I’m right for? Just maybe: A middle-aged character actor to play three supporting roles – a sickly bachelor brother; a nosy mailman; a scary saloon keeper. I can do that.

Tom Shelton (right) in "A Christmas Memory"
Tom Shelton (right) in “A Christmas Memory”

At the audition, a brutal battle with my nerves. I sing a song from the score and read from the script. Nick laughs in the right places.

Suddenly it’s over. I didn’t exactly set the room on fire, but two days later, a phone call.

“We’d like to offer you the part of…. “

Two weeks later, first rehearsal. We gather in the Laguna Playhouse green room. Hugs to old friends. Eager first-time meetings. As always, we discover dozens of six-degrees-of-separation. The large community of theater is surprisingly tiny.

We are pleased as Lotto winners to be here. And nervous as cats.

Capote’s autobiographical tale, all of 20 pages, (first published in Mademoiselle Magazine in 1955), is set in small-town Alabama in the 1930s, at Christmas time. It’s a  love story – eccentric in its details but universal at heart – between young Capote (Buddy) and his 60-something cousin Sook, who has been charged with raising the boy. Sook and Buddy are the best of friends, inseparable in their mutual need and childlike view of the world. But time, as it must, moves along. He grows up, she grows old.

The piece is simple and truthful, told in Capote’s patented gorgeous prose.

Is there something audacious about adapting a work of art that is already near-perfect? Perhaps, but our estimable authors (Duane Poole wrote the book, Carol Hall the lyrics and Larry Grossman the music) have expanded the story with imagination and love. It is obvious their work is motivated by an overflowing respect for the original. This is the work of intelligent pros and I am impressed.

We read aloud. First instincts. Tentative choices. Nick does us the lovely favor of telling us we are “all very well-cast.” Translation: “Relax. I’m with you. You’re all going to be terrific.”

But he’s not just blowing smoke. We are well-cast. Marsha Waterbury and Tracy Lore will both be at once hilarious and heartbreaking as Sook and her stern older sister Jennie, respectively. Ciaran McCarthy will bring depth and charm (and a knockout tenor voice) to Adult Buddy.

Amber Mercomes will be warm, fierce and funny as the family housekeeper. And our two kids, Wills Spangler (13) as Buddy and Sienna Yusi (14) as Nelle Harper, are going to be sensational. I feel the narcotic rush of being in the midst of talent. I’m flattered to be a part of this thing.

We sing through with our brilliant musical director Darryl Archibald. The music is wistful and haunting, but deceptively difficult.

And then we’re on our feet. The next two weeks are long but fly too fast.

Rehearsing a play is like dismantling a car, laying out all the pieces on the floor, and then trying to put it all back together. Without a set of instructions.

But a play miraculously begins to take shape. We laugh a lot and we cry a lot. It seems this thing is really touching, dammit! We have a box of tissues at every rehearsal.

Scripts out of hand, finally. It’s liberating. Now signs of an actual performance begin to form. Then there is tech weekend. Two consecutive 12 hour days when the set, costume, lighting and sound designers do their work. It takes a full day to get through one act. But I am in awe of the process. Don Hill, our superbly skilled stage manager, somehow keeps it all moving forward.

At the end of it all we do a run-through, our first (and last!) dress rehearsal. Anyone who thinks theater people are scatterbrained and effete, well, they’re wrong. Tonight we are Navy Seals.

But where is our play, our story in the midst of all this sudden, glorious “production.” Is it still there?

We need an audience–that final element, the ultimate injection of energy, without which a play would not be theater.

Tuesday night: first preview, and the audience arrives, our first. Whoever else they may be, they are pioneers, and I wonder if they have any idea how much power they have over us tonight.

We hear them from the wings. That pre-show murmur like a giant purring cat.

The early scenes are edgy, just a little bit nervous. Then the laughs start to come. And some solid applause at the end of songs. They’re getting into the show. And in response to their response, we are too. That sweet symbiosis.

Suddenly it’s over. The curtain call feels warm and genuine. We are tired, relieved and pleased.

Back in my dressing room, something obvious occurs to me.

Performing a play for an audience is like giving a gift. We all know about the pleasures of giving over receiving. And yet we all know that our pleasure is sometimes in direct proportion to the delight in the receiver.

A month ago, at our first rehearsal, I said to our director, “thanks for the Christmas present,” meaning thanks for casting me in this show.

With our audience finally in place, I feel I’m now passing that present forward. What a sweet gig I’ve got.

For tickets to “A Christmas Memory,” visit LagunaPlayhouse.com.

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