Thursday, December 13, 2018

Family Business: A Capote Christmas From Voices of the South

Posted By on Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 1:43 PM

click to enlarge Truman Show
  • Truman Show
I sure do like watching Voices of the South do that special thing they do. The theater company does lots of stuff, of course — running festivals, hosting forums for writers, staging original plays, cabarets, comedy, improv, etc. But Voices was born in a narrative theater tradition and inspired by U of M professor (and company member) Gloria Baxter, a real pioneer in the form. It sometimes seems that the small, enduring troupe is its truest self when it’s digging into literary content and giving descriptive writing a dramatic shape.

Holiday Memories at Theatre South isn’t the most cheerful of recollections, though it speaks to the sweetness and small comforts that sustain us when the world turns icy and mean. I was instantly reminded of grad school, when this style of performance was still new to me and also to the undergrad students who would go on to found Voices of the South. It’s where I saw most of the faces in this cast and crew for the first time: Alice Berry, Jenny Madden, Todd Berry, Brian Helm. So, for me, this straightforward Truman Capote anthology evoked a kind of holiday nostalgia before anybody on stage ever mentioned food, or dogs, or kites, or Christmas trees. And that’s just the tip of things.

Grad school was long ago. Alice and Todd’s son Reese has since grown into an accomplished young actor, and now he too joins actual and extended family on stage in a show about actual and extended family, set against the backdrop of Thanksgiving and what Dolly Parton dubbed a hard candy Christmas.

Holiday Memories collects a pair of richly described short stories inspired by scenes from Capote’s early life growing up in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. “The Thanksgiving Visitor” and “A Christmas Memory” chronicle the relationship between a young boy called Buddy and his elderly but childlike cousin Sook as they make fruitcakes, drink whiskey, swat flies for pennies, chop down secret Christmas trees, break each other’s hearts, fly handmade kites, and take care of one another when nobody else can or will.

Todd Berry narrates, Alice plays Sook, while Reese takes on the younger Buddy, trying to make sense of his makeshift world. Helm stands in as a variety of characters, but makes his most lasting impression as Queenie, the family dog. Gail Black finds some very funny moments as the ancient, but still enthusiastic family matriarch, and the group coalesces, as only people who’ve worked this closely for this long ever really can. Even Helm, who’s been away in California for many years, slides back into the fold like he’d never been away.

Holiday Memories was still a little rough at the edges on opening night, but the kind of rough that tends to smooth quickly when a show is up and running. It’s not exactly a feel-good experience, but it’s a feel-something experience, free from all the usual seasonal platitudes. There’s no “God bless us every one” and not much “peace on earth” or “good will toward men.” But there is goodness and innocence; affection, comfort, and fruitcake. And for better, worse, and all things in between, there’s family — or whatever passes for family.

I love the holidays, and many of the annual rituals that go along with them. But I also admit to being true Grinch when it comes to so many sentimental holiday entertainments, trotted out year after year to stress ideals, and teach lessons that seldom stick past the new year. I worry, sometimes, that all this seasonal artifact — this Hallmark humanity — is worse for us than all the sugarplums combined. Even Holiday Memories seems like empty calories in the abstract, but less so when I'm watching it unfold. See, I sure do like watching Voices of the South do that that special thing they do. As their latest show builds to its conclusion and both the younger and older Buddies reflect on the loss of their elderly friend, I was confronted by similar moments from the past year and was reminded of all the irreplaceable parts of myself I’ve let loose “like a kite on a broken string.” And again, I'm reminded of my school days, when I first met so many of these actors.

“Walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky,” Buddy says in the script’s closing moments. “As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven.”

Quiet, unflashy, and built out of imagination, light, and a love of language, Holiday Memories is as chilling as first frost, as filling as cornbread dressing, and far more likely to haunt you than any Christmas ghosts.

Don't let it float away.  

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