Commonweal's 'Sanders Family Christmas' transports audience to 1941
The fine line that any Christmas play must walk is the one that divides secular from sacred. Stray too far over that line in either direction, and run the risk of sounding either too reverent or not reverent enough.
LANESBORO -- The fine line that any Christmas play must walk is the one that divides secular from sacred. Stray too far over that line in either direction, and run the risk of sounding either too reverent or not reverent enough.
"Sanders Family Christmas," the holiday musical that opened over the weekend at the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, apparently walks that line with expertise, because it has in a short time become a Christmas season chestnut. And since Alan Bailey, co-writer of the play, directed this Commonweal production, we can assume we're seeing this show the way it's meant to be seen.
"Sanders Family Christmas" is a sequel to "Smoke on the Mountain," which featured most of these same characters. This time, it's Christmas Eve, 1941, and the family is going to sing at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the mountains of western North Carolina. To add poignancy to the evening, young Dennis Sanders will report to boot camp with the Marine Corps two days later. In other words, this is the last time the family will sing together for the foreseeable future.
Bailey holds the line mentioned earlier by balancing serious moments and "witnessing" with humor and hijinks.
The Rev. Merlin Oglethorpe, played with much mirth by Philip Muehe, is, in his own fumbling way, an effective man of God.
The good reverend loves to trade Bible verses with Vera Nelson, the family matriarch. In fact, this happens with such frequency that doubters might think it crosses that too-reverent line.
Rachel Kuhnle, as June, the non-singing Sanders daughter, June, is a crowd-pleaser with her off-beat "signing" of songs and her banging on various percussion instruments.
Newcomer Josiah Robinson is the future Marine, Dennis, who happens to play a tasty fiddle, while Lizzy Andretta, as Dennis's twin, Denise, manages to perform a lovely version of "I Wonder as I Wander," despite audience guffaws at June's background antics.
Jeremy van Meter is Uncle Stanley, who has served time in prison but found Jesus in time for a Christmas testimony. Eric Lee is Burl Sanders, with Betti Battocletti as his wife, Vera.
Some members of this cast never picked up the instruments they're strumming on this stage before last spring. Given that, the performances are entirely credible.
Kit Mayer's set manages to convey the coziness of a winter night (with falling snow outside the windows) while providing plenty of room for the cast to perform.
All of it -- the mountain music, the Bible verses, the accents -- are a window on a different time and culture. The miracle of Bailey's writing and direction is that "Sanders Family Christmas" most often comes off as dignified, rather than corny.
What: "Sanders Family Christmas"
When: Through Dec. 22
Where: Commonweal Theatre, 208 Parkway Ave. N, Lanesboro
Tickets: $35 adults, $15 students; 800-657-7025 and commonwealtheatre.org