Miracle On 34th Street, adapted from the Valentine Davies novel by Patricia di Benedetto Snyder, Will Severin and John Vreke. Directed by Patricia di Benedetto Snyder
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The cast sings Will Severin's "Christmas Lives Inside the Heart"; photo: TimRaabNorthernPhoto
Alison Lehane as Susan Walker and John Romeo as Kris Kringle; photo: TimRaabNorthernPhoto
"..as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth."
Written by Valentine Davies as a screenplay, then as a novella and now adapted as a stage play (there was a musical version, too - Meredith Willsonís "Hereís Love"), Miracle on 34th Street tells the story of a mother and daughter, non-believerís in Santa Claus or much else for that matter, who fall under the spell of the Macyís Santa Claus who firmly believes that he is the one-and-only St. Nick. Legally known as Kris Kringle, the elderly gent takes the place of a drunken Santa at the Macyís Thanksgiving Day Parade and rides into the life of the department store and its human resources staff (the aforementioned Mom) with a vengeance. The story has a peculiar resonance in an age where most people have lost their belief systems due to the political strains of the world scene. To hold on to the concept of a single individual who treats every household in the world with the same depth of interest and concern is a difficult one. The delight and humor inherent in such an idea are hard to find in even the most complacent of hearts.
Luckily, theater can take us out of ourselves for an hour or two. In the charming to look at production on stage in Troy at the New York State Theater Institute, located in the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College, lots of people are doing their very best to recreate a time in American history when a new belief system in the possibility of pure goodness was essential. It was 1947. The world was still reeling through the aftermath of World War II. Humanity was rediscovering itself. Miracle on 34th Street spoke to that internal revolution.
When Patricia di Benedetto Snyder constructed her stage adaptation in 2000 the world was about to undergo an emotional upheaval due to the unwarranted war to be waged by the US overseas a little more than a year later. There was a need for a spiritual awakening, a revival of the imagination and the same sort of belief system that inspired a new generation of baby boomers. Today, not so much later, the mindset of a nation is different. Idealism has been overwhelmed by a pragmatic sensibility. Our beliefs have been constantly assaulted by government, educational and travel constraints, the loss of individual freedoms. To believe, out loud, in much of anything that seems good and upright and symbolic of purity and goodness feels fake and highly impractical.
As a counterpoint to this malaise a play such as Miracle on 34th Street should be a good thing. It should be. But in the four years since NYSTI last presented its homegrown sweetness something has gone awry and that "something" is pointed up strongly in the work on stage this season. Momís skepticism seems right on and her choice, leading her child into early adulthood, feels almost right, a means to protect her from the disappointments to come. Particularly in the hands of actress Emma Parsons, whose Doris Walker exhibits her chill relationship with the world around her, this show is thrown a mighty curve. Parsons plays Doris for all the cynical hardness that the writers have given her to work with. She reacts barely at all to the growing confusion of sweetness that surrounds her. We never see her flinch, or transition from skeptic to believer. We never find her falling in love with her neighbor Fred Gailey. We donít arrive, with her, at the inevitable conclusion of the play. If anything we precede her and know sheíll never really catch up. This is a lynchpin role on which nothing really turns in this presentation. The lines tell us that she has changed, but her presentation, her physical presence, never underscores those words.
Her daughter Susan, played by Alison Lehane, on the other hand makes marvelous transitions. Lehane has the right look for an emotionally restricted child, but her move into the world of magical realism is fabulous. If this Susan had been an orphan, scarred emotionally by the complete loss of parents, who changes her attitudes due to her friendship with Kringle it would have been a better way to go than to be hampered by Parsonsí performance. In spite of the odds, Lehane makes us believe that she has discovered something in the opportunity to believe in the rationally impossible.
Lehane is well abetted by actor David Baecker as Fred. He has a freshness that lets even the most familiar lines emerge as both new and refreshing. While his character may love the mother, his work on stage tells us that his affection for the daughter is what motivates him. That emotional connection, in Baeckerís hands, is the truly pure symbol of this show. There is nothing in anything he says or does that would imply a potentially abusive situation to come. He views the child as just that, a child. He brings an eagerness, an mature adult eagerness, to his playing. His courtroom scenes are lovely also.
John Romeo plays Kris Kringle. Half the time I bought him completely and the other half I wasnít so sure. Weíve all heard that Santa Claus is not committed to gifts for kids who arenít good. Romeoís Kringle takes that attitude to an extreme at times, making Kringle a bit less sympathetic than he needs to be. When heís good, he is very, very good, but when heís not, heís off-putting. We should always be in his corner, in this show, and sometimes Romeo doesnít let us remain there.
Byron Nilsson does a very good job as Dr. Pierce and in the courtroom scene was touching. John McGuire was his usual self, delivering a fine and contoured performance. Sean Patrick Faganís Mr. Sawyer is a truly despicable character and bravo to the actor for making him so. Others in the cast who do well are David Gould, Natalie Carter, Leah Woods as the little Dutch girl, and Mort Hess as Mr. Macy.
The costumes by Lloyd Waiwaiole are the best as is the set designed by Victor A. Becker. Lighting designer Betsy Adams pulls our attention perfectly.
The show on Sunday afternoon was sold-out with families everywhere. There was a definite appreciation for the work as a whole and that is good. Somehow, for me, the presentation wasnít as arresting as it should have been. I enjoyed much of what I saw and heard but came away wishing Iíd just seen the movie instead. Itís all in the little things, the attitude and the times in which we live. I would encourage you to go see what live theater is all about and enjoy the show for what it brings to the season, but donít expect it to change your life or your own beliefs. This time around it just wonít do it.
Miracle on 34th Street plays at the New York State Theater Institute, located in the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College, through December 20. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-274-3256.