by Michael Bowen
When the Sanders family enters North Carolina's fictional Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, they file in from the back of the "church" past all the "pews" in which the audience is sitting. Connie Ray's musical comedy, as a result, practically compels our participation. Two little old ladies totter in, casting sidelong looks at all these new folks in the sanctuary. Please get out your hymnals, y'all, because we're about to sing Hymn No. 594, verses one and three.
At their first appearance, the Sanders family members mimed brushing snowflakes off their coats, though the snowfall outside on opening night was quite real. Later on, outdoors at intermission, kids reveled in all the white stuff, chucking snowballs at patrons' cars as the patrons themselves first jokingly encouraged them, then cringed. Laughter echoed along the snowbanks. This wintry tableau during the interval was a reminder: A Sanders Family Christmas, a musical about good ol' folks in a small town at the outset of wartime, was being produced, right now, right here in River City, in front of yet more small-town folks -- people whose country is venturing into yet another war, with an outcome equally uncertain.
Dennis, the elder of the Sanders twins, has just signed up with the U.S. Marines, we're told, and he'll be shipping out in just a day or two. His mother, Vera, is overcome with the awareness that this will be the last time the family may sing together for quite a spell.
But of course the minds of an Idaho audience in 2001 are not on World War II, but on our new amorphous fight against hidden terrorists. When the preacher told us, therefore, that the son would soon be off to war, when the congregation joined in prayer that the war might end soon, when there was mention of food and gasoline rationing, there was silence in the playhouse.
I've often wondered what it was like to watch plays at the historical moment of their maximum thematic impact. What was it like to see Arthur Miller's The Crucible when McCarthyism was actually alive and not a dead term in a history book? Or when Moliere lampooned incompetent doctors, even as some of the quacks themselves sat seething on the other side of the rococo footlights?
It feels like a chilling awareness: sacrifices will continue to be made. Laughter can only fill up a few of the cracks in our longing for a better, more peaceful world.
At one point, the Sanders clan patriarch, Burl, played by Thomas R. Stratton, tells about being in a still another war. In the first World War, he says, after his unit went over the top against withering fire, he was the only one left alive. Somehow, he hurled himself into an empty tank, and the farm boy in him figured out how to drive the durn contraption. For such blessings, he offers an extended prayer of gratitude.
One war refracts into another, we think. But the real point of the speech was to serve as a setup for the poignance of Stratton's baritone in "O Holy Night." Here was a rendition of that song so simple, heartfelt, powerful and lovely that it brought tears to my eyes. My response wasn't unique. It was one of those rare moments in the theater when you want to leap out of your seat and yell for an encore -- continuity of plot and suspension of disbelief be damned. I just wanted to hear him sing that song again. And again. It was that good.
The real-life talent and piety of the Lake
City cast, in fact, is quite remarkable.
Among these musician-actors, there are graduates of Juilliard and of Bob Jones University, singers in church choirs, followers of the Lord who can play the guitar and banjo, the timbrel, harp and goodness knows what else. (Several cast members play several instruments each.) Tony Ludiker (Dennis) has merely won the Washington State Open Division Fiddle Championship 13 times. Oh, and he's a five-time national grand champion fiddler, too.
This troupe can do comedy, as well. (Rebecca Priano, in addition to her singing and playing, is a marvel of coming timing.) But the comedy trophy in this group may go to David Clemons (as Uncle Stanley, the ex-con). In one of those moments that recalled old Carol Burnett or Johnny Carson routines -- so funny that the cast themselves burst out laughing, moments of unfeigned hilarity that only make audiences laugh harder -- Clemons held his glaring, evil-eyed countenance, even as the performers around him were busting up. The occasion was a marriage proposal, on bended knee, between a bashful suitor and the very surprised woman he was a-courtin'. Stanley had ensconced himself right between both parties. As a result, the halting and inept proposal seemed to be directed right at Stanley (who just finished doing some hard time). All over the stage, actors were busting out of character, their smiles winning out over all attempts at solemnity, but Clemons held his ground, glowering at the pastor and all the others even as, one by one, they lost it. Hilarious.
The contrast between such comedy and one of the evening's final choruses was affecting. One by one, the company joined in an a cappella version of "Onward Christian Soldiers": Just as brother Dennis had to soldier on (whether as infantryman or chaplain, we're never told), we have some struggling of our own to do 60 years later.
Dennis' fate seems not so much unresolved as simply dropped. But then again, during a Pearl Harbor Christmas, Burl and Vera Sanders didn't know whether their son would be marching home again.
Six decades later, then, we have all the more reason to dash through the snow and catch Lake City's mix of holiday cheer and sobriety. We can never know how many more Christmas bells we'll be allowed to jingle, so -- before it glides past, folks, seize the sleigh.