Long before people tagged each other on Facebook and posted pictures of their adorable children, perfect pets and gorgeous holiday celebrations on social media every 20 minutes, we all caught up with far flung family and friends with the annual Christmas card. The accompanying letter usually included annoyingly idyllic updates about weddings, graduations, promotions and tropical vacations, where everyone else's family seemed picture perfect.
So it was an inspired idea for set designer Steve Barnes to place the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of James DeVita's new play, "Christmas in Babylon," inside life-size holiday cards. With symmetrical snowflakes dancing in the background above a serene winter landscape, the McShane and O'Rourke clans bicker, argue, fume and stomp towards the holiday season, trying to determine who's really part of the family and who's not.
Which relatives do they get to choose and which ones are they stuck with? Is being a family about biology or is it about love? And what would it look like if everyone really got along?
Under the direction of MCT's artistic director C. Michael Wright, the story focuses on the philosophies the mostly blue collar Long Islanders use to make sense of the world — and the coping mechanisms they resort to when (rightly or not) they try to make their family group look more like a picture in a Christmas card.
The conflict is sparked by the reunion of a flailing but good hearted auto mechanic, Terry McShane (Tom Klubertanz), and his long-lost high school sweetheart Kathleen O'Rourke (Laura Gray), a wildly successful self-help guru. Now in their late 40s, the two are unexpectedly brought back together by Kathleen's 20-something daughter Kelly (Eva Nimmer) who has some questions about their short-lived relationship as teens. Kelly also longs for a larger, more conventional family to be part of after two stepdads and an imagined biological father have left the picture.
But Terry's got his hands full already with his straight-talking, generally unamused wife Denise (Mary McDonald Kerr) and his anxiety-ridden, hyper-emotional daughter Abby (Sara Zientek), who is trying to find herself after dropping out of community college. As the play progresses, each time one character takes a step forward toward happiness – or at least stability – another character backslides into chaos. That leaves Terry, a simple guy who's just trying to get through each day the best he can, with a nearly impossible balancing act.
As the anchor of the play, Klubertanz channels incredible energy into his roles of peacemaker, referee and protector, while also plagued by the sinking feeling that the world has changed too much for him to understand. Always trying to make a joke to ease the tension, he is out of his depth from the moment the story begins.
His former fiancée Kathleen has also spent much of her life at a loss as to how the world works, so she manufactured a lucrative brand of meditation, Eastern philosophy and mindfulness to overcome her own guilt and doubts. Dressed in colorful, flowing caftans and armed with a wireless mic and a ceremonial drum, Gray gives the audience a taste of her affirmations and self-help seminars that gradually grow less convincing, even to her.
As his wife Denise, Kerr is made of much harder stuff, preferring to take things head-on, saying "no" when she means "no" and not worrying about other people's feelings. With a level stare and almost deadpan delivery, she doesn't laugh at her husband's lame jokes, even though it would bolster his confidence. By contrast, the two daughters – played by Eva Nimmer and Sara Zientek – are looking for control. They eventually try to counter their parents' histrionics by becoming calm, centering forces.
There is a lot of emotional baggage to unpack here for sure, and DeVita's script does it best through several of the characters' long monologues. Klubertanz bookends the play with two exceptional speeches, one that illustrates Terry's state of mind and the other that plumbs the depth of his heart. Nimmer also shines as she paints a detailed and poignant picture of her childhood, imagining her absent father and the exotic life he must live in Italy without her. These moments are the spine of a beautiful and unique story about the bond between parents and children.
But there's a lot of play in between that's composed of repetitive arguments and tiresome accusations. While the first two scenes plow forward, packed with revelations, the mushy middle gets stalled in unbearably cyclical conflicts. It's as tedious as the joke that Terry tries to explain to his wife over and over, with no avail. Finally, when Gray's guru disavows all her new age zen techniques and descends into self-destructive crisis, the misery gets deeper but the characters don't.
Then, returning to the story's heart, the ending scene captures an incredibly touching exchange between father and daughter, acknowledging our imperfections and celebrating love that finds us when we least expect it.
Chances are "Christmas in Babylon" will not become a holiday classic. But it does have some moments of sparkle that we can all appreciate on a dark December night