• Little House Christmas (Photo - Gina Long).

      Little House Christmas (Photo – Gina Long).

      Need a holiday treat for the family? Perhaps a slice of a loving family coming together during troubles instead of splintering apart? Sierra Madre Playhouse aims to deliver with its just-opened A Little House Christmas. Yes, that Little House.

      By Melanie Hooks

      The Ingalls family of 70s television fame sprang from the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her pioneer childhood – the same source used here by playwright James DeVita, a specialist in children’s theater adaptations. The central dramatic question, can Santa Claus find a remote cabin on the Kansan prairie during a storm?, will likely seem slim to adult audiences, but the children in the audience worried right along with the sisters Mary (Katie-Grace Hansen) and Laura (Isa Eisenberg on performance night). In fact, one particularly engaged four year-old sang and laughed at the lively family’s antics throughout, even when he hadn’t any idea what the lines meant.

      A Little House Christmas is that kind of show – full of easily understood conflict and feelings that wash over into the small playhouse space. Warmth isn’t something necessarily associated with the modern theater, which more often challenges than reassures, but ‘tis the season in which both reassurance and warmth are welcome. All this begins in the lobby with historically accurate red long underwear and bios that remind us that Wilder began teaching school at 15 – a confident adult by prairie standards. Then, walking inside, Stephan Gifford‘s beautifully detailed set evokes old-growth wood and crackling hearth light (thanks to Lighting Designer Shara Abvabi).

      Little House Christmas play (Photo - Gina Long).

      Little House Christmas play (Photo – Gina Long).

      The standout singers of the show, Rachel McLaughlin as Ma and Hansen as Mary, open the play with the lovely “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” a 15th century hymn by Pretorius. The music throughout is curated by Lindsey Strand-Polyak, scholar and Director of the UCLA Early Music Ensemble. Apart from “Silent Night,” modern ears aren’t likely to recognize most of the Ingalls’ holiday repertoire, but their preference for centuries-old hymns reminds the audience of the characters’ sincere faith, as well as their distance from anything a modern Pasadena resident might associate with ‘traditional’ Christmas music. The entire cast shines during the production numbers, a credit to Musical Director Ron Barnett and Choreographer Kelsey O’Keeffe. This is especially true of the rousing square dance sequence, set to reels mentioned in the books and which fill the house with delight and camaraderie – and perhaps a wistfulness for days when multiple generations shared their free time together instead of divided up into private corners.

      As director Alison Eliel Kalmus writes in her playbill notes, 19th century frontier life was “a simpler but certainly not easier time in our history,” and a few hints of this flash through in characters’ never-ending battle against the elements. Rich Cassone as Pa touches on this despair when alone with his wife, terrified that the climate will beat them all. His firewood shed can’t shake a leak, and this one fact puts them all at risk. They must burn hay instead of wood, which robs their animals of proper feed, leaving the family without milk, eggs or meat. They will soon be unable to light their oven to cook. And of course, they may simply freeze to death in the cold. Simple-to-understand problems, but not ones most of us would choose. Cassone and McLaughlin convince us ably of their belief in one another to stave off the worst, but Kalmus also allows space for Cassone’s vulnerability. Pa’s dread reminds us how fragile life truly was – and is. (In point of fact, most modern viewers wouldn’t last one winter under the play’s harsh conditions.)

      Little House Christmas at Sierra Madre Plyhouse (Photo - Gina Long).

      Little House Christmas at Sierra Madre Plyhouse (Photo – Gina Long).

      Thomas Colby as Mr. Edwards, the Ingalls’ bachelor neighbor, fills the stage with old-time exuberance and laughter, while Barry Schwam as war-haunted Uncle George adds a touch of pathos and more modern familiarity. The characters don’t have psychological terms at their fingertips, but they do show more kindness and understanding of a broken mind than expected. Perhaps the drama is lessened by the want of any real bitterness, for example from the Olesons, Laura’s traditional enemies, here played more believably than their TV counterparts by Valerie Gould as the haughty Mrs. Oleson, and Amy Stapenhorst as Nellie on the performance night. And the total absence of Native American contact serves as a chilling reminder of why the Ingalls have land to clear at all. Then again, this isn’t historical commentary. Some light feather ruffling might be all that’s called for here.  Nellie’s flouncing is fun, Laura’s tomboyishness is ahead of its time, and in the end, the Ingalls and their neighbors’ generosity is grounding. They share their strength, even with those they don’t much care for; they dance and break bread together. Surely we don’t need modern words for that.

      A Little House Christmas
      • Alison Eliel Kalmus (Director), James DeVita (Adapter/Playwright).
      Rich Cassone (Pa), Thomas Colby (Mr. Edwards), Isa Eisenberg (Laura), Patrick Geringer (Peter), Valerie Gould (Mrs. Oleson), Katie-Grace Hansen (Mary), Evan Klein (Peter), Adam Simon Krist (Nick), Rachel McLaughlan (Ma), Sofia Naccarato (Laura), Samantha Salamoff (Nellie), Barry Schwam (Uncle George), Amy Stapenhorst (Nellie).
      Sierra Madre Playhouse
      87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024
      Ample free parking behind the theater.

      • Through December 23, 2016.
      Friday and Saturdays, 8 p.m. & Sundays, 2:30 p.m.
      Additional performances: Sat., Dec. 10 & 17 at 2:30 p.m. & Tues-Friday, Dec. 20-23, 8 p.m.
      • Admission: $34.50. Seniors $32. Youth $25.
      • Buy tickets here (click on performance day).

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