By Todd Babiak
Those who love Christmas tend to have trouble empathizing with those who — for no solid religious or cultural reasons — don’t feel it. From Charlie Brown and The Grinch to Ebenezer Scrooge and the incontinent drunk of Bad Santa, encouraging them to get with the yuletide program is a deep mine for entertainers.
In Oh! Christmas Tree playwright Conni Massing gives us Algar, played by Collin Doyle, a decent and loving man committed to hating Christmas. When he moves in with his girlfriend Lucy, played by his real-life partner Lora Brovold, and she breaks out the Christmas sweaters on the first of November, they both realize something: maybe, just maybe, there’s a problem.
Director Brian Deedrick keeps a lovely balance between light and dark, the twinkling tinsel and the shadowy hatchet. The core of the play is what we keep below the surface so we can enjoy that evening glass of wine together, and what we’re forced to confront. In this case: when are we getting a Christmas tree?
Massing makes a symbol and a cipher of the tree. It’s where we hang our obsessions, our nostalgia, even our quiet pain. Lucy needs her tree to get through an otherwise stressful season as an event planner, to feel that special feeling. Algar would prefer to either run away from it or, if possible, spend the holidays in his underwear with some video games.
The story meanders a bit, and some of the scenes hit the same bell. Once we understand we’re waiting for the couple’s inevitable confrontation we find ourselves mentally fast-forwarding to it. But Deedrick keeps Oh! Christmas Tree moving quickly, and Brovold and Doyle have a lot of fun veering from kind understanding to roaring misery and back again.
Lucy has a large, Christmas-blissed Scandinavian family and a nosy spiritual leader in Pastor Larson, whose on-stage representation harkens back to the parents in a Peanuts holiday special: honking. Some of the funniest moments in the play come from the essential humour in the sound of a Northern European language; we feel a bit guilty laughing at the expense of a piqued Swede, simply expressing herself. Doyle has fun as a crusading, anti-materialist teacher. If he can’t be emotionally honest with Lucy, at least he can persuade his students to burn their presents.
Every Christmas story is some version of a conversion miracle. Everything must change for Lucy and Algar, and it does. Massing avoids all of the easy routes available to the holiday playwright and rings our bells more subtly.
Oh! Christmas Tree
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Blunt Entertainment and Theatre of the New Heart
Written by: Conni Massing
Directed by: Brian Deedrick
Starring: Lora Brovold, Collin Doyle
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Dec. 23