Mrs. Coney and the Christmas Schooner | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Mrs. Coney and the Christmas Schooner 

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MRS. CONEY and THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER, Bailiwick Repertory. These two well-crafted plays, running in rotation, should satisfy audiences seeking fresh yet traditional Christmas entertainment. Mrs. Coney, a premiere written and directed by Belinda Bremner, is a sly, slight story-theater tale of Christmas mountain magic. James, the middle-aged narrator, reminisces about how as a boy in Depression-era Kentucky he freed a rabbit caught in a trap, then came across Mrs. Coney, an ancient hermit also disabled by a leg wound. Her bitter loneliness inspires Jamie to give up his own Christmas in order to give her one, spending his time and money to cook, clean, and care for the bedridden woman and her retinue of animal friends. Jamie's rewards--as bountiful as their explanation is fanciful--illustrate the joy of helping others and discovering the wonder in ordinary things.

This rustic one-act is impeccably performed by a fine cast whose understated expressiveness makes the story believable. Twelve-year-old Beau Ashton Butherus is restrained but resonant as Jamie, and his interaction with Ted Hoerl as his grown-up self gives this memory piece a strange poignance. Gail Curry is truly ageless as the time-ravaged rabbit woman, and the rest of the ensemble (including a small band led by harmonica player Joe Terrasi) create a tangible yet ephemeral familial atmosphere.

Set in Chicago and Michigan's upper peninsula in the 1880s, The Christmas Schooner tells of a Lake Michigan captain who braves winter gales to transport Christmas trees to the Windy City. After he's killed in a storm, his grieving, angry widow must wrestle with whether to let their son carry on his father's cause. Though the simple story feels padded by playwright John Reeger's caricatured if colorful depictions of German-American family life a century ago and by songwriter Julie Shannon's Brahms-meets-the-Carpenters score, this production is an often rousing and sometimes touching celebration of self-sacrifice and family. Well directed by Julia Lowe Walker and featuring a nicely rough-hewn performance by David G. Peryam as the captain as well as some sumptuous choral singing under Paul Hamilton's direction, this feel-good family show, now in its third year, seems likely to become as much a seasonal perennial as the tannenbaum itself.

--Albert Williams

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