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Banishing Humbug 

by Michael Bowen

Miracle on 34th Street isn't merely a fantasy. It delights kids -- I saw two of them literally on the edges of their seats during the Lake City Playhouse production (through Dec. 20). It also reminds us adults that growing up shouldn't cause us to lose our senses of imagination and hope.

Director Lucy Marlow updates the story (with cell phones and contemporary clothes) from the 1940s. That, along with an audience full of cast members' friends and neighbors, gains immediacy for the beloved story of Santa living in our midst. Kris Kringle seemingly enters into our world -- he could even be at your local Bon-Macy's.

Marlow represents a bit of Coeur d'Alene theater royalty: She studied theater with Sanford Meisner in New York, made a few movies in the mid-'50s, did a slew of guest appearances on TV shows and now teaches at the public, college-prep CdA Charter Academy.

Here, she's mostly charged with keeping a herd of turtles in line. (There are a lot of turtles, and they are headed in a lot of different directions.)

The program calls this "a play from the novel by Valentine Davies, adapted by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, Will Severin and John Vreeke," but the playwriting trio must've had a peek at the movie, because this script is full of quick cuts that are difficult to accomplish onstage. One short scene follows in succession on another -- 32 scenes in all. And with more than 30 cast members shuttling around, the technical requirements overwhelmed Lake City's small stage. In fact, such a large cast and fragmentary script would even tax the resources of a theater much bigger in size and budget. The action bounces among 15 different locations.

Set designer Jack Green does what he can to help, supplying a pair of three-sided kiosks on wheels that can be moved around -- unfortunately, none too quickly -- to provide backdrops for brief inset scenes. Green's set also enlivens the actions with an all-purpose, contemporary New York skyline. But the need for so many scene changes -- one languorous parade of stagehands after another -- would sap the vitality out of even the most patient department store Santa.

Bill Bryson certainly has the look of the role down pat: He's a dead ringer for Kris Kringle. (Marlow found him doing the Santa thing as a greeter at Wal-Mart.) More important, Bryson (a stage rookie) pulls off the understated self-assurance of a man who knows, quite simply, that he is, in truth, Santa Claus. Making good use of his deep and tranquil voice, Bryson doesn't mug or wink when asked about his character's identity: I'm Kris Kringle, he seems to say, and them's just the facts.

As the lawyer who helps him prove it, Pete Hanson avoids cartoonish extremes and projects confidence. Reportedly, Hanson called on the day of auditions, inquiring about how he might get involved -- and ended up with one of the lead roles. Remarkably, he's the most naturalistic and convincing actor onstage. He's calm in his pursuit of that unsentimental busybody Doris, and he's both logical and persuasive in the courtroom scenes as an advocate for jolly St. Nick.

As Doris -- the business executive who doesn't want her daughter believing in Santa Claus at all, much less in this Kringle fellow -- Pam Stark loses an opportunity to trace her character's movement from skepticism to faith. Grimacing with every expression of disbelief -- that is, on nearly every one of her lines -- she underscores Doris's lack of imagination so much that, when it comes time for Doris's conversion to hope and optimism, the change is unconvincing. When disbelief gets telegraphed this much, there isn't much room for any other kind of message.

Kathie O'Brien chooses a different path. As Miss Adams, the frantic and eager-to-please secretary, she's saddled with a one-dimensional role -- and develops it into a sympathetic characterization. Whether she's trying to set her bosses right or providing moral support for Mr. Kringle in the courtroom, O'Brien has the knack of getting the audience to root for her.

There are long stretches of community-theater acting in Lake City's Miracle on 34th Street, but there are also some diverting moments: Bryson hopping around a living room, impersonating a chimp along with Doris's daughter Susan (Kylie Turbin); the understandable exasperation of the prosecutor (Dan Yake) when one of his own family members testifies for the defense.

It's the time of year to be generous: Even if the seams show, Lake City weaves much of this Miracle into a nice Christmas tapestry.

Publication date: 12/11/03

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