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A CurtainUp Review
A Christmas Memory
The grown-up Capote immortalized the child-like Sook in his autobiographical short story "A Christmas Memory," which gained wide popularity when it was morphed into the classic 1967 film with Geraldine Page as the Sook character, and narrated by Capote himself.
Now the Irish Repertory Theatre is staging it alternately set in 1955 and 1933 and in a musical version (book by Duane Poole, music by Larry Grossman, lyrics by Carol Hall). And it is worth a visit to see the Tony award-winning actress Alice Ripley (Next to Normal) as the doyenne of the Southern kitchen. She's joined by a sturdy cast: Ashley Robinson (Adult Buddy), Silvano Spagnuolo (Young Buddy), Nancy Hess (Jennie Faulk), Taylor Richardson (Nelle Harper), Virginia Ann Woodruff (Anna Stabler), and Samuel Cohen (Seabon Faulk/ Haha Jones/ Farley). For those hungering for a musical that captures the halcyon days of childhood, this production delivers, if not all the nuances of the original text, the golden flavor of one Christmas at the Faulks homestead.
James Noone's multi-platform set evokes a Southern home during the Depression era with the most prominent image on stage is the outline of a towering tree set back from the performance space and viewed through a semi-transparent slatted scrim.
That tree has a dual theatrical purpose and effect. It suggests the real woods where Sook and Buddy would take their November excursions to find "windfall pecans" for her traditional fruitcake and select the family Christmas tree. It's also a clear nod to Capote's family roots in the South — his Faulk heritage, and his lasting bond to the women who molded his mind, character, and fledgling literary talent. According to Gerald Clarke's excellent 1988 biography Capote: A Biography, it was here in Monroeville, listening to the small town gossip and yarns spun by the Faulks and their neighbors by fireside or on the front porch, that young Capote developed his "literary viewpoint" and decided to become a writer.
The rest of the creative team rise to their respective dramatic demands and are in harmony with the production-at-large. Brian Nason's lighting softens the Spartan-looking set and David Toser's costumes are a suitable mix of calico, cloth and linen, with a smart-looking hat for the Adult Buddy character. Micah Young's musical direction and Steve Orich's orchestrations are in synch, and tunefully executed by Young (piano), John DiPinto (synth), and Ed Shea (percussion). Although I didn't exit the theater humming any of its culinary or holiday-themed songs, there's over a dozen numbers in this show that can momentarily sweep you up and land you in nostalgia.
As directed by Charlotte Moore, this two-plus hour production sparks to life at its best dramatic moments (the most beguiling one is when Sook and Buddy proudly recount baking a fruitcake for President and Mrs. Roosevelt and muse whether they will eat it at their Christmas dinner) but never quite catches fire. Could it be that the formidable ghost of the trimmer TV movie, is still too deeply ensconced in the popular imagination and recognized as the gold standard? Perhaps the only answer is to decide for yourself.