A 'Holiday' gift from 16th St. Theater

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By Doug Deuchler

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Let me recommend a perfect gift suggestion for a friend or family member. Purchase a pair of tickets to Our Holiday Stories at 16th Street Theater, then go share this evening of three wonderful readers-theater pieces together. 

The price is right, the performers are lively and engaging, and I guarantee you'll enjoy a great discussion afterward. 

The holidays are approaching swiftly. Each year brings Scrooges and Nutcrackers galore. Folks buy tickets to these seasonal shows, hoping to create fond memories to share with loved ones. But often such productions are blandly familiar and predictable. Attending holiday theatrical performances can be like dutifully visiting old relatives. Some are more fun than others, but all are potentially tedious since there's seldom any surprises.

Our Holiday Stories at Berwyn's 16th Street Theater, however, is wonderfully dynamic and refreshing. This show, a readers-theater storytelling event, provides a touching trio of short stories penned by three current, popular Chicago-area writers: Elizabeth Berg, Robert Koon, and Tanya Saracho. Two of the tales, Berg's and Saracho's, were presented in 2011 but I loved experiencing them again. They're so delightful.

Rather than bemoaning the annual stress and commercialism of the holidays, these crisp tales focus on family or relationships with loved ones, but not in that sticky, Hallmark Channel, warm-and-fuzzy manner. Each is heartfelt, smartly written, and often rather funny.

In readers theater, actors do not memorize their lines but read from scripts on music stands. Don't think of this as "books on tape" or some 1940s radio play, however. The skillful performers use vocal expression, lighting, gestures, music, and plenty of magnetism and energy to help the audience grasp the characters and conflicts. With tight direction by adapter Ann Filmer, the four skillful actors — Patricia Donegan, Richard Henzel, Karen Rodriguez, and Miranda Zola — create memorable, unforgettable characters in each of the three short stories.

The first story, "Over the Hill and Into the Woods," by award-winning, bestselling novelist Elizabeth Berg (an Oak Park resident), is a Thanksgiving story as funny as it is poignant. It's about a bossy, cynical 75-year-old grandmother named Helen (played by Donegan) who, with Earl (Henzel), her husband of many years, anticipates her grown daughters and their families coming for dinner. But after decades of routine, tedious Turkey Day get-togethers, Helen questions the importance of such large family gatherings and just can't rise to the occasion this year. In fact, she's having such a meltdown, she refuses to come down from the attic. She leaves her loving husband to greet their guests and complete all the cooking and dinner preparations himself.

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

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

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

The second story, "The Chaplain," by Robert Koon, takes place on a very cold, silent Christmas Eve in Belgium in 1944 during the last year of World War II. A military chaplain serving on the front lines makes the rounds of the men. He has the curious gift of being able to tell by their eyes which ones will make it and which ones will not.

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 on Christmas Eve in a Texas border town. A 30-something daughter (Rodriguez) has returned home to spend the bittersweet holiday with her mother (Donegan), now aging and living alone. Her father is deceased and her younger sister, Sissy, struggling with addiction issues, is missing in action after running away from a rehab center.

As soon as the protagonist arrives at the Texas airport, she realizes "how badly prepared I am for this trip." She admits she shifts into being "a 14-year-old brat" now that she's back in her old hometown setting. Yet she heads out for the day with an adoring, also unmarried, childhood girlfriend, Olga Ramirez (Zola), who has stayed in the same neighborhood, still knows all the same people, and seems to spend most of her time making DVDs showing off other folks' babies. These two old girlfriends bump into the Chicagoan's former hometown boyfriend (Henzel), "the one that got away," while he's 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 "Noche Buena" (Christmas Eve). 

Perhaps you really can't go home again. But in the morning, she sees things much differently.

The actors show great range and versatility. Each of these strongly written seasonal stories is well-performed, gripping and enjoyable. Our Holiday Stories runs just short of 90 minutes and is performed without an intermission. Dominique Caldwell is the stage manager.

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