STAGE REVIEW : Lamb's 'Festival of Christmas' Ties Season's Sentiments in a Bow : Theater: The holiday play is rewritten for each yule season, but sticks to its religious, warm and fuzzy themes.

"Festival of Christmas," the Lamb's Players Theatre's annual hit (many performances sell out before opening night), seems impervious to reviews and that, perhaps, is as it should be.

Playwright Kerry Cederberg Meads, who writes each "Festival of Christmas," recognized that she was probably never going to write as definitive a Christmas story as "A Christmas Carol," so she settled for writing minor riffs on how the spirit of the season can touch a heart for the better.

The time and place may change, from Renaissance England to the American Midwest to--in the current production--turn-of-the-century New Jersey. But what results is always a familiar grab bag of warm, fuzzy feelings, studded with carols beautifully sung by Lamb's talented ensemble and topped with a big bow of a happy ending.

Unlike "A Christmas Carol," which courts the ecumenical, Meads' "A Festival of Christmas" is very much for believers who wish to be reminded--often in the course of the show--that Christmas is, first and last, the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Meads' latest story, her seventh in 12 years, tells of a brief, life-changing journey through the land of the Faerie. The central character is a woman who lost a child at birth the Christmas before, and turned a cold heart to her husband's 5-year-old daughter from his first marriage. It is based, in part, on "The Gifts of the Child Christ" by Scottish storyteller George MacDonald, and the play as a whole is a valentine to MacDonald and his storytelling, rich in fantasy, myth and morals.

The action begins in late 19th-Century New Jersey where MacDonald (Robert Smyth) has been asked to dinner along with Belinda Lippencott (Deborah Gilmour Smyth), the woman who has lost the child, and her husband, Thomas (Mike Buckley).

Belinda wants nothing to do with MacDonald or his talk of children and fairies. But, when she waits, alone, for her husband to make excuses so they can flee to another party, she begins to read one of MacDonald's books. As the lights dim she finds herself moved suddenly to a strange land where shadows walk like people, leading her to goblins and a wise woman, a King and Queen and ultimately, a shadow play of her own life.

For Gilmour Smyth to make this work is no mean trick; she rightly understands that she has not just entered Faerie land, but the world of her own unconscious. She lets us see her subtly reduce in age from an imperious, world-weary adult in her 30s to a petulant 12-year-old and then mature, again, in a more wholesome way.

If the turnaround smacks of sitcom formula in its completeness, that's more in the writing than in the performance. It's particularly troubling in the closing passage as Smyth makes a hairpin turn from mourning her child to rejoicing in her rediscovery of the 5-year-old.

Some necessary tears and an appreciation of the crucial role time plays in healing get overlooked in the process.

Robert Smyth, who keeps the direction fluid and affecting, plays MacDonald like a warm, witty and wise Jiminy Cricket, literally over Gilmour Smyth's shoulder. In the dream sequence, he narrates part of the story and advises her thereafter.

Carmen Beaubeaux is enchanting as the maid in the opening scene who becomes the blind old guide in the fantasy. Leigh Scarritt is deeply moving as the young child, Sophie, and is eloquent as the fleeting Shadow. Buckley as Thomas Lippencott, David Heath and Pat Thayer as friends at the dinner, all offer fine support.

One of the few disappointments is Mike Buckley's set design--a simple sitting room, which has but one inspired moment, although that one is a doozy: a sudden smoky drop through the floor to a goblin's lair. For the rest, as long as we are going to have Faerie and goblin costumes (the effective clothes were by Margaret Neuhoff Vida and masks by Nathan Peirson), could we not have a sprig of greenery or twinkling lights, or from sound designer Mary Kidd, a hooting owl that might suggest an enchanted forest?

Kidd's musical direction more than makes up for the lack of sound design; the carol arrangements may have reached a new poetic height.

This "Festival" ends on the feeling that it gives patrons exactly what they've come to enjoy over the past 12 years and that, more than anything, is probably why, for many ticket buyers, "A Festival" remains a Christmas experience that they subscribe to year after year.

This play wouldn't fly at any time of the year. It goes down like warm bread pudding on a chilly day. The nutritional value may not be great, but it's wonderful while you're eating it around a brightly bedecked table with family and friends. Afterward, you may struggle to justify ingesting all those low-protein calories, but that would be missing the point. The body needs treats as well as sustenance, and, if you can't have one time of year to indulge, then what, all moralizing aside, is Christmas really for?

"A FESTIVAL OF CHRISTMAS"

By Kerry Cederberg Meads. Director is Robert Smyth. Musical arrangements, musical direction and sound by Mary Kidd. Choreography by Pamela Turner. Set by Mike Buckley. Costumes by Margaret Neuhoff Vida. Lighting and masks by Nathan Peirson. Shadow and goblin wigs by Suie Sitko. With Carmen Beaubeaux, Mike Buckley, David Heath, Leigh Scarritt, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Robert Smyth and Pat Thayer. At 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday with Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2 and additional Saturday performances at 10 a.m. through Dec. 23. At 500 Plaza Blvd., National City, (619) 474-4542.

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