A Welcomed Tradition Returns for 30th Anniversary Season

Last night Marietta’s Acclaimed Theatre in the Square continued to celebrate the 30th Anniversary Season with another play that returns the theater to its roots, with a revival of the Sanders Family Christmas. This 2011 production provides over two hours of solid entertainment as the story of one family’ 1941 Christmas Eve bring the audience to a small church house in North Carolina. It is the story of a family on the brink of war and finding their faith tested.

The Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe, played by co-director Alan Kilpatrick, and June Sanders, played by Jennifer Akin, open the play by setting both the circumstances of the evening, and the tone of the play. The Sanders are musical family that has been using their talents to spread the Christian Gospel during the late depression and is not transitioning to World War II. June is the non-musical Sanders, but it clear that the good pastor is interested in the young lady, and that June is quite taken with the pastor. There is an amazing chemistry between these two actors. Kilpatrick creates a realistic and likable Reverend Oglethorpe; Akin brings a refreshing and adept physicality to her role.

The pair is soon joined by the rest of the Sanders Family. Co-director Karen Howell plays stern matriarch and amateur bible scholar Vera Stanley; Bob Payne is Burl Sanders the patriarch of the group. Scott E. DePoy, takes on the role of Stanley Sanders, Burl’s brother, who has recently returned from California with a secret. Rounding out the cast are Laura Floyd and Jeremy Wood as the 18-year-old twins Denise and Dennis. Dennis is enjoying his last Christmas eve before going into the Marine Corp. The singing side of the Sanders Family bring with them amazing harmonies, accomplished musical talent, and a breathtaking ability to shift from comedy to earnest caring as naturally as they change keys.

It was a pleasure to watch this well-crafted theater piece work its way out on stage.  The acting and direction were top-notch and the entire ensemble worked so well together, at times I wondered if they were related, or at least member of the same church.  The themes they tackled are universal and timeless.  The maturation of the next generation, the loss of the previous one, the need for true forgiveness, the limits of faith, the question of one’s own righteousness versus arrogance, and the call to duty.

One would not need to be raised Christian to enjoy this, but it might help to understand the dogged determination of the elder characters as they use bible verses to correct and dominate the other characters.  It also explains the need for Dennis to enlist, though in 1941 enlisting was a routine for eighteen year olds as today’s Buddy Holly glasses and oversized scarf. It also explains Denise’s determination to fly free from rural North Carolina and join the USO as a performer.

When I was first given the assignment to see the family friendly Sanders Family Christmas, my initial reaction was that it would so family friendly it would be boring. I stand corrected and entertained.  This musical comedy brings a heartwarming story with three-dimensional characters, real underlying drama in a time of tragedy and change, rich and nuanced performances and amazing vocals and musicianship.  If there was no story-line, and it was merely a concert of the songs, then it would be enough for admission. Wrapping the music around a compelling story that is well told? Well as they said in 1941…that’s all gravy!

Get yourself some tickets to the Sander Family Christmas, playing now until January 1, 2012.