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Review: Stage West's Season's Greetings

By Jerome Weeks, KERA Critic at Large

Dallas, TX – Before there was National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, before there was A Christmas Story or Bad Santa or all the other dysfunctional families-at-Christmas comedies,there was Alan Ayckbourn's stage play, Season's Greetings. Written in 1980, it has become a staple of American theater companies eager to avoid the typical holiday fare with too much sugar in the eggnog.

However accurate these comedies may be about family aggravations dousing holiday cheer, they're still about the need for sharing and for home -- what it means to be home, to open one's home. In Season's Greetings, home is a well-off British household with a drunken sister-in-law in the kitchen ruining the dinner and her husband, a failed doctor who stages an elaborate puppet show each year, a show the children always hate. There's a younger sister nervous about a new boyfriend, a hostess whose marriage has gone stale and a grumpy grampa who watches TV and extolls the virtues of violent self-defense.

Currently there are two local stagings of Season's Greetings. One is in the basement space of Theatre Three in Dallas, known as Theatre, Too; the other is presented by Stage West in Fort Worth. I'm going to talk about the Stage West production because -- it's a case of a theater coming home.

It's hard for a nonprofit venture to survive, to connect to a community, when it has no steady residence, and I've seen Stage West in four different homes.

Sixteen years ago, the company abandoned its former warehouse space on West Vickery just south of downtown Fort Worth.
Although the re-routing of I-30 was a blessed correction of a disastrous piece of highway planning, all of that construction made a trip to Stage West a risky expedition through desert canyons. So producing director Jerry Russell took his company on an extended tour of spaces around town, a tour that has come full circle back to 621 West Vickery.

The old warehouse retained its great assets for a theater -- 9,000 square feet of tall ceilings with no support pillars to block the view. Having raised a quarter of a million dollars for the project, Stage West has done a handsome job renovating the space. For a downtown warehouse turned theater, it's almost cozy.

The production is cozy, too. Season's Greetings is classic Ayckbourn: It's a domesticated farce -- a quietly repressed farce. Most farces concern deceits and mistaken identities, illicit affairs and chase scenes. There is one adulterous fling in Season's Greetings but the comic energy really comes from the many interconnected hopes, failures and family resentments. Directed by Jerry Rusell, the production is a good-looking affair with a solid cast, notably Dana Schultes as the hostess and Justin Flowers as the visiting boyriend.

But while Season's Greetings isn't as stinging or as ingenious as Ayckbourn's best work, some of its strongest comic elements are muted here. That fling, for instance, is cut short by a noisy children's toy going off. I've seen half-a-dozen Season's Greetings, and that scene works best with a shriekingly loud toy. Stage West delivers a squawk.

More seriously, there's a threat in Season's Greetings of human ties being cut off or rejected, and this coldness is embodied by the grandfather. After a career in security, he sees an ugly world and is more than willing to respond in kind. There's a real harshness in him, but Gary Moody plays him as a bluff, hearty fella who just happens to carry weapons. That softness blunts the play's comic edge.

Trust me. The louder the toy, the meaner the grandfather, the bigger the laughs.

Isn't that always the case with families at Christmas?