You don’t have a lot of time left, but if you happen to be in or near Bowling Green, KY, and you’re looking for something to do, have I got a deal for you!
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson is on the Public Theatre of Kentucky boards at the quaint, intimate Phoenix Theatre in downtown Bowling Green … but only for five more performances, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (Dec. 12-14) at 7:30 p.m., with a sensory friendly matinee Saturday (Dec. 14) and a final matinee performance Sunday (Dec. 15).
I was privileged to watch the opening night performance last week. It was funny … poignant … refreshing … and real. What really stood out, however, were the “extras” — the shepherds and angels, starting at age 3 1/2 (Demetri Burris, Ruby Carver, Zoey Grace Guerra, J.W. Hardin, Isabelle Lee, Johnny Lynch and Lulu Smith). They didn’t have speaking roles, but had designated spots on stage and they never missed a beat and found their “spot” with little or no direction. And they did it on a school night!
Robinson’s story is the run up to a retelling of the Christmas story through a scheduled pageant performed annually at churches around the country. Only there was one big difference. This particular ensemble never encountered the unkempt, unruly, marginalized Herdman clan (Gracie Davis and Charley Grace Duff as Imogene; Carson Reynolds as Ralpgh; Anne Michael Hensley as Gladys; Charlotte Catalan as Claudia; Lena McCombs as Lori; and Adeline Houchin as Olivia). They are referred to “the worst kids in the whole history of the world.” Other kids were afraid of them. Adults shunned them. And they played to their stereotype — bullying, cussing (although only inferred in the production), cigar smoking, jug drinking (also inferred), etc.
But I am ahead of myself a little. The pageant’s perennial director Helen Armstrong (Sumer Embry) falls and breaks her leg and all the parents point to Grace Bradley (Robin Bruce) to carry on. She reluctantly agrees after soliciting help and support from her husband Bob (Brett Riley).
But the fun begins when the Herdmans drop in at Sunday school after Beth Bradley (Hope Hensley) has her lunch confiscated by Imogene Herdman and inadvertently shares there are free desserts handed out at Sunday school. Although unchurched, they show up the day of the organizational meeting and character assignments and immediately co-opt the key roles with fist-pounding coercion.
The Ladies’ Aid Society members are beside themselves with disapproval, all the shepherds quit because Gladys Herdman “hits too hard”, the show is briefly re-titled Revenge at Bethlehem, and the church catches on fire. But Beth and her community watch in surprise as the same old Christmas story is rejuvenated by the creativity, energy, and unexpected sincerity of the misunderstood young family.
The audience witnessed Imogene, as Mary, evolve from a gum chewing, hoop earring wearing, cigar smoking, Jesus tossing street urchin to weeping softly as she cradles the doll representing her baby in the final scene. We watched the Herdmans bring their naivete about the Christmas story to life, their life with their perspective, often at odds with churched presupposed thought. The Herdmans are a little uncertain about where to go and what to do, as the real-life Holy Family and Wise Men must have been; the Wise Men choose to bring the baby Jesus a ham from the Herdmans’ own gift basket instead of the “crummy” frankincense and myrhh from the story; and the shepherds are sufficiently terrified of Gladys looks authentically awed by her announcement of Jesus’s birth.
This Christmas tale is warm and incredibly funny, full of characters both relatable and utterly unique. By common agreement, it is the best Christmas pageant the town had ever had.
The rest of the cast included Hope Hensley (Beth Bradley), Ruby Heltsley (Charlotte Bradley), Amber Milam (Edna McCarthy), Mark Hirsch (Reverand Hopins), Amanda Smith (Irma Slocum), Samantha Burris (Vera Clark), Cecilia Hamilton (Jane Clausing), Aaron Damme (Mr. Slocum/fireman), James Kemp (Mr. Clausing/fireman), Madelyn Hoffman (Alice Wendleken), Alora Lyvers (Maxine), Aleah Smith (Shirley), Kannon Seilhamer (Doris, candy striper), Ali Seilhamer (Beverly), Parker McCombs (Elmer Hopkins), Archie Embry (Hobie Clark), and Benjamin Embry (David).
Production credits go to Amber Turner, producing artistic director, stage manager, sound designer, and light board operator; Lynne Gilcrease, director; Debbie Lanham, music coordinator; Robin Bruce, dance choreographer; Patrick Duncan, lighting designer; Brett Riley, costume/wig designer; Julienne Topmiller, sound board operator; and Sarah Herron Photography, photography.
The production — except for the sensory friendly matinee — uses theatrical fog, strobe lights, sirens and herbal tobacco products and runs for 60 minutes without intermission.
Additional information, including the schedule and ticketing, is available at the Public Theatre of Kentucky’s website, ptkbg.org.Upcoming productions this season include The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, Feb. 13-23, a gripping reimagination of the events the night before the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Forever Plaid by Stuart Ross, May 29-31, a dinner theatre presentation in partnership with the Historic Railpark and Train Museum, the story of four guys whose big break ends in tragedy. When their careers and life ends, the story of Forever Plaid begins.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny. — C. S. Lewis