Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Speak, Memories

Adrianne Krstansky and Michael John Ciszewski revel in the holiday memories.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant.

The traditional "Christmas show" has loosened its grip (somewhat) on the Boston theatre scene of late; these days A Christmas Carol can find itself rubbing shoulders against the astringent likes of Ch'inglish.  And the "Christmas show" itself has begun to, well, diversify into a holiday platter of alternative offerings.  Last year, for instance, the New Rep rolled out a sturdy version of Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, and this year they have mounted a double bill of two classic tales by Truman Capote, "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory," under the joint rubric of Holiday Memories.

Together they make for a perfectly fine Christmas show, although the New Rep only taps into a modicum of the poignant whimsy that originally made these classics - well, classics.  Capote's memoirs revolve around his relationship, as an essentially abandoned child, with his elderly, but child-like, maiden aunt (or cousin?), "Miss Sook."  The stories are like dispatches from a lost, private world of shared gentleness (and shared weakness); little happens in them (Sook and Truman, or "Buddy," gather ingredients for fruitcakes, or invite guests over for Thanksgiving dinner), but much is made clear about their little corner of the world (Monroeville, Alabama, in the 30's - a milieu which also cradled Harper Lee, who grew up to write To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Capote figures as a character).

What distinguishes both stories, of course, is Capote's inimitable voice, and the resonant perfection with which his small-scaled prose matches his small-scaled (but gimlet-eyed) perspective.  Here, for instance, is one familiar stretch from his description of Miss Sook:

I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

It seems so sweet, simple and direct, this poetic reverie - but it's also pregnant with a sophisticated self-awareness that oscillates between the child-like and the adult.  (Like Miss Sook, Truman Capote was a bit of both).  Detail after detail falls into place like gems in a diamond setting (Miss Sook's eyes, for instance, are "sherry-colored and timid"); the prose itself gives the slight story a quiet, unforgettable drama.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, whenever that original prose is quoted in Russell Vandenbroucke's adaptation, Holiday Memories suddenly resonates.  Elsewhere, however, director Michael Hammond sometimes bulldozes the delicate atmosphere with a rambunctiousness that doesn't really feel true to Capote's tone.  As you can see above, his Truman and Miss Sook are prone to triumphant "YESS!" gestures, as well as other presentational quirks.  Both actors - New Rep mainstay Adrianne Krstansky, and newcomer Michael John Ciszewski - are appealing talents, however, so they generally make the material work on Hammond's broad terms, if not Capote's subtle ones.  They're aided by a charming memory-attic of a set by Jon Savage, and a series of funny turns by supporting players Jesse Hinson and Elizabeth Anne Rimar, who pitch the antics of the outside world at about the right level of farce (against which Truman and Miss Sook's world should cut a delicate contrast).

Still, the production does tap into the nostalgia - and sometimes the moral vision - that suffuse both stories.  Perhaps its finest moment occurs at the climax of Capote's Thanksgiving memory (rather than his better-known Christmas vignette).  Here the author's gentle but devastating statement regarding "deliberate cruelty" had all the force one could wish for - which, in the end, made Holiday Memories memorable.

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