On Theater: A warm 'Memory' to close the year

When Truman Capote chronicled his troubled childhood in rural Alabama in "A Christmas Memory," he didn't change any names to protect the innocent — except his own.

Capote dubbed himself "Buddy," a successful writer visiting his roots two decades after the events of 1933, but those around him are portrayed with their own identities — including the tomboyish Nelle Harper, who would grow up to write "To Kill a Mockingbird" under the name Harper Lee.

His story is vividly told in the musical version of one of his short stories, "A Christmas Memory," now on stage at the Laguna Playhouse, where past and present intertwine in loving, and often bittersweet, fashion. The pieces of Capote's life are warmly stitched together by Duane Poole (book), Larry Grossman (music) and Carol Hall (lyrics).

Director Nick DeGruccio has chosen a splendid cast to recreate the renowned author's early Alabama upbringing and his fervent bond with a slow-witted cousin, matronly Sook Faulk, with whom he baked Christmas fruitcakes every winter of his childhood.

It is this character who sticks in the mind of the audience, as brilliantly interpreted by Marsha Waterbury, never descending into discomforting retardation, yet warm and childlike as she and Buddy prepare the holiday delicacies. It's a memorable performance layered with innocence and honesty.

The elder Buddy, who returns to Alabama to settle the family's affairs after his eccentric guardians have passed on, is solidly interpreted by Ciaran McCarthy, who serves as the play's narrator and observer of the flashback action, tying up the fragile memory package with "Paper and Cotton" in a moving first-act curtain closer.

His younger, wildly enthusiastic self is portrayed by William Spangler, a 13-year-old transplant from England well trained in the playhouse's Youth Theatre program. Spangler nicely conveys the young boy's enthusiasm in the cake-making venture and his anxiety at the prospect of being sent to a military school.

His other guardians, unmarried cousins living an uneventful life, are given stage life by Tracy Lore and Tom Shelton. Lore presents a formidable figure, stern and demanding, and her late-show solo "You Don't Know It" is riveting.

Shelton not only impresses as the not-too-bright cousin Seabon, but does triple duty as menacing whiskey dispenser Haha Jones and a nosy mailman, Farley, who knows the neighbors' news before they do.

As future "Mockingbird" author Nelle, Siena Yusi, 14, makes an exemplary impression — a fiery slingshot-wielding young harridan who would remain Capote's staunch ally when both achieved literary laurels.

Special mention must be reserved for Amber Mercomes, who scores mightily as the family housekeeper and the only other member of the group still remaining in 1955 when Capote/Buddy visits. Warm and wise in her performance, Mercomes delivers a spectacular solo, "Detour," recalling the various life-altering roads her character has taken.

An offbeat occurrence arrives midway through the first act when all seven cast members (including the elder Buddy), some greatly at odds with others, join in a rousing square dance-type number, "Mighty Sweet Music," before returning to their contentious characters.

The rural setting by D. Martyn Bookwalter is imposing, its wooden support beams stretching skyward. Bruce Goodrich's costumes vividly reflect the Depression era, and Steven Young's lighting effects lend strong visual support.

"A Christmas Memory" expands a troubled writer's short story into a major musical event that should be cherished this month by visitors to the Laguna Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "A Christmas Memory"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21; 2 p.m. Dec. 22; 4 p.m. Dec. 24; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 26; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 27; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 28; 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 29

Cost: $36 to $71

Information: (949) 497-2787 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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