Waukesha civic theatre brings back old-fashioned Christmas story
Published Dec. 5, 2017
By MARILYN JOZWIK
While it will never become a holiday classic, “The House Without a Christmas Tree” – Waukesha Civic Theatre’s holiday offering -- is a sweet slice of Americana and a heartwarming reminder of the season of giving. Along the way there are other life lessons dispensed by a grandmother, a teacher, a shopkeeper and others.
The play was adapted for the stage by WCT’s Doug Jarecki. It is based on a 1972 TV movie starring Jason Robards and a children’s book by Gail Rock published in 1974.
Set in 1949 Clearwater, Nebraska (which had a population of 419 in 2010), the play features the Mills family – dad James (Rick Richter), his 10-year-old daughter Addie (Julia Rady) and James’ mother (Denise Meagher). We learn that Addie has no recollection of her mother, who died of pneumonia when she was quite young.
Addie is a bright girl and at an age when she would like to engage with her father, who has been taciturn since his wife’s death. Addie longs to have a Christmas tree with decorations like the other kids in her school but her father refuses, supposedly because it would remind him of his late, Yuletide-loving wife. “You have to learn in this life you can’t have everything you want,” James rails at Addie. Later on, in a moving scene, we find out the terrible burden he has carried through the years and how his mother – and Addie -- help him see beyond his grief to once again enjoy his family and the holidays.
Directed by John Cramer, the show has the feel of some of those 1940s and ’50s holiday movie classics like “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Holiday Affair” with its one-parent household, schoolchildren scenes and charming small-town flavor.
Interspersed with scenes at the Mills home are scenes at Addie’s school, where her class is preparing for the school’s Christmas concert under the direction of Peggy Thompson (Alyx Minor), their teacher. The school’s principal, Eugene Wilson (Michael Stickney), has the hots for Thompson, but is tongue-tied whenever he finds a moment alone with her.
We also meet Frank Wimple (Paul Lipinski), the kindly general store owner, as well as some of Addie’s friends, including the boisterous, outspoken Carla Mae (Katherine Rogers).
There are sweet little subplots beyond Addie’s yearning for a happy Christmas (and a happy father), such as Addie’s classmate Billy’s (Kieran Plautz) attempts to woo Addie and the charming scene Billy has commiserating with Principal Wilson over the opposite sex. There are also the poor family and the kindnesses shown to them, as well as the kindly shopkeeper who cares about more than just the bottom line.
The acting is generally quite good, with Richter doing an outstanding job as James, especially in the heartfelt scene with his mother. While Richter does a nice job with dad Mills, his is a downer character throughout much of the show. Unlike other holiday heavies, his character is not so much despised as pitied. He’s not mean enough to be truly hated, but is merely unlikable. His transformation, however, is nicely handled and welcomed.
Rady gives Addie a no-nonsense, adult-like personality. She’s a leader and stands up for what she feels is right, even throwing punches when she has to. Her grandma is surprised to hear that she wants a Christmas tree because the other kids have one. “Since when do you give a fig what the other kids think?” asks her wise grandma, played with spunk and warmth by Meagher.
Minor has a really nice presence as the schoolteacher, giving her character a sweetness that endears her to her students and a firmness and fairness that keep control. She’s the sort of teacher we all wish we had. Stickney’s Principal Wilson is also nicely drawn; the actor gives the character just enough awkwardness to look endearing but not clownish.
The kids are all energetic – perhaps a little too much so at times -- with some unevenness in their acting abilities. Rogers gives Carla Mae a suitably obnoxious and verbally unfiltered personality, while Sahil Gupta as the youngster with a reverse Midas Touch adds some levity with his Stewart character.
I think this production missed some opportunities to make some key scenes more intimate. The Mills home is a rather bare, wide open space spanning the entire stage, with no separation of living, dining and kitchen areas. A really cute scene with Addie and her grandmother frosting cookies could’ve had more impact in a cozier setting, or with the spotlight on the two. The same is true of a pivotal scene with Addie’s father, as he opens up to his mother about his loss. Perhaps the bareness was to correlate with Mr. Mills’ feeling of emptiness, or to remove remembrances of his wife, but it made for a rather dull visual.
Rady could be heard singing at a couple points throughout the show and her lovely voice enhances those scenes. Several of the girls Addie, Carla Mae, Judy (Vanessa Ruck) and Amy (Bryanna Madson) break out into a lively version of “Deck the Halls,” which also added a festive touch.
Music accompanying the scene changes reflected the story nicely including “Blue Christmas,” “All Through the Night” and the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald singing “Sleigh Ride.”
It also would have been nice to have the kids sing a few more songs. In a couple scenes, the entire class sang purposely off-key while practicing for the concert, which did offer some comic moments. But at the concluding concert, they sang beautifully, in harmony. I would have liked to have heard even more of their angelic singing.
Nonetheless, the show is perfect for the whole family, with younger viewers enjoying all the antics of the children, and grownups appreciating some of the lessons learned by Mr. Mills.
If you go
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: “The House Without a Christmas Tree”
When: Through Dec. 17
Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
Tickets/Info: 262-547-0708; www.waukeshacivictheatre.org