Tales of holiday hazards and human interest

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By Doug Deuchler

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Each holiday brings Nutcrackers and Scrooges galore. People buy tickets to these seasonal shows, hoping to create fond memories to share with friends and family. But such productions are often blandly familiar and predictable. Attending holiday theatrical performances is like dutifully visiting old relatives. Some are more fun than others, but they are all potentially tedious since there's seldom any surprises.

This season, however, we have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to new entertainment. The current production at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, for instance, is especially dynamic and refreshing. Our Holiday Stories, a readers theater "storytelling" event, provides a touching trio of short stories penned by three current, popular Chicago-area women: Elizabeth Berg, Rohina Malik, and Tanya Saracho.

Rather than bemoaning the annual stress and commercialism of the holidays, these crisp new tales focus on family, but not in that sticky, Hallmark Channel warm-and-fuzzy way. Each is heartfelt and smartly written.

In readers theater, actors do not memorize their lines but read from scripts. But don't think this is "books on tape" or some radio play. The performers use vocal expression, lighting, gestures, plus plenty of magnetism and energy to help the audience grasp the story they're presenting. With tight direction by adaptor Ann Filmer, the four skillful actors — Yadira Correa, Kirsten D'Aurelio, Patricia Donegan, and Oak Parker Richard Henzel — create memorable, diverse characters in each of the three readings.

The first story, "Over the Hill and Into the Woods," by award-winning, bestselling novelist Elizabeth Berg (also an Oak Park resident), is a Thanksgiving story as funny as it is poignant. It's told by a cynical 75-year-old woman named Helen (Donegan) who, with Earl (Henzel), her husband of many years, anticipates her grown children and their families coming for dinner. But after decades of routine Turkey Day get-togethers, Helen just can't rise to the occasion. In fact, she's having such a meltdown, she refuses to come out of the upstairs hall closet. She leaves her loving husband Earl to greet their family and complete all the cooking and dinner preparations himself.

Helen's take on everything from family conflicts to political events is sarcastic yet hilarious. She's annoyed her children have no appreciation of family history. She blames everything that's wrong with people today on TV and computers, "where all anyone wants to do is keep everything passive and abstract and moronic."

"All this self-esteem crap was making for a society of selfish people who were careless with everything but themselves," Helen complains. She hates all protests and demonstrations, from anti-war to gay rights; she wishes they'd all "Just go home and shut up!" And she certainly doesn't want to end up in the E.R. on a holiday because "no one will speak English."

Young veterinarians have advised her to "put down" her aged cat Gertrude. But Helen seems to identify with the once gentle, now bedraggled, lumpy old pet.

She considers sending everyone in her family back to their homes before Thanksgiving dinner even takes place. Will she do it?

The second story, "Ramadan Moon," by playwright and solo performance artist Rohina Malik, is about the trauma and soul-searching that confronts a family when their child is identified with "special needs."

"Ramadan is the holiest month for Muslims," says Malik, "where believers fast from dawn to sunset. 'Ramadan Moon' came from a very personal place. The story is based on my daughter, and the journey of healing that we took together."

The protagonist, Safa (D'Aurelio), wearing a hijab head scarf, has given birth to a third child but infant Maya seems too quiet. After she watches her baby girl experience episodes of "spasms," Safa searches computer websites and determines that Maya's got infantile epilepsy. Now Safa's previously peaceful home is fraught with conflict as she and her husband Sameer (Henzel) — not always on the same page — struggle to figure out what they can do, or even afford to do, for their daughter. Options are expensive and daunting, so Safa feels frightened and isolated. "I used to have lots and lots of friends," she says. "But let me tell you something: When your child gets sick, that's when you find out who your real friends are."

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It was a thrill to meet Malik, her husband and children, in the lobby reception after the show.

The final story of the trio is Our Good Night by playwright/actress Tanya Saracho, who was born in Mexico but grew up in Texas before she came to Chicago.

The story takes place at Christmas in a Texas border town. A 30-something daughter (Correa) has returned home to spend the bittersweet holiday with her mother (Donegan), now aging and alone. Her father is deceased and her sister, Sissy, struggling with addiction issues, seems to be missing in action after running away from a rehab center.

As soon as she arrives at the airport, she realizes "how badly prepared I am for this trip." She admits that she shifts into being "a 14-year-old brat" now that she's back in her old hometown setting. Yet she goes out with an adoring, also unmarried, childhood girlfriend, Olga Ramiriz (D'Aurelio), who's stayed in the same neighborhood, still knows all the same people, and seems to spend most of her time making DVDs about other folks' babies. The two old friends bump into the protagonist's former boyfriend (Henzel), "the one that got away," out shopping with his pregnant blonde wife. It's all too much to cope with, so the visitor grows furious with "stunted" Olga and dismisses her rudely on "Nochebuena" (Christmas Eve). Perhaps you really can't go home again. But the next day, she sees things much differently.

Author and playwright Saracho, also meeting and greeting folks at the opening night reception, was warm and funny.

Each of the strongly written seasonal tales is gripping and vividly presented.

Our Holiday Stories runs 85 minutes without an intermission.

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