Channeling the spirit of Christmas

Regular readers can now tell this whiny Scrooge of a stage critic that he finally got what he's been bitching about for weeks--a new and decidedly nontraditional holiday play titled Greetings!. I must say that, as much as I enjoyed looking at it, I'm not sure what the hell to say about it.

There are plenty of important, very timely sentiments floating around in Tom Dudzick's schizophrenic script, which concerns the intrusion of a most unexpected visitor on one Pittsburgh family's conflicted Yuletide celebration. If you, like me, are consistently amazed by how people not only miss the message of love at the core of Judeo-Christian philosophies, but wind up subverting it by brandishing the letter of Biblical law like a cudgel, then Greetings! is an especially relevant affirmation. If kidnapping didn't carry a federal penalty, I'd Mickey Finn a few Southern Baptists and tie them to seats in Stage West's Fort Worth theater in the hope of washing their brain of some curious, un-Christian notions.

Yet at times, Greetings! wags its finger with a fervor suspiciously similar to the smuggest fundamentalist. That finger belongs to a sweet-natured young man named Mickey (Michael Petty) whose severe mental handicap is controlled for at least a third of the play by a several-thousand-year-old spirit who calls itself "Lucius" and has possessed Mickey's body to halt one working-class family's disintegration from religious differences. It's a lesson these angry, self-righteous characters sorely need, but I'm not sure how much of it sinks into the audience. On a recent Thursday night performance, the ticket-buyers were almost exclusively couples over 60 who, while apparently enjoying themselves for most of the play, were silent during Lucius' monologues in a way that suggested they weren't quite sure how to react.

This uncertainty was by no means restricted to the retirement-age set. I must admit to not knowing whether I was supposed to laugh or feel chastened by Lucius' blunt assessments of how people hide from each other inside the institutions whose philosophies guide their lives. Thankfully, this message has apparently resounded with other theater audiences across the U.S.; since its first off-Broadway production in 1994, Greetings! has been staged by regional troupes to considerable success. Fort Worth's Stage West brings the script its North Texas premiere. But you have to wonder, is the Bible Belt ready to be loosened a notch during Christianity's biggest celebration of the year?

Grown son Andy (Charlton B. Gravitt) brings his fiancee Randi (Nicole Case), home for a first-time visit. There's enough tension already in that household between Andy and his moody father, Phil (Jerry Russell); mama Emily (Jody McCoy) and special-needs little brother Mickey (Michael Petty) mostly just wait till the storm blows over. But Andy drops a bombshell before midnight mass; not only is Randi Jewish, she's also an atheist. And she clings to her non-belief as passionately as her prospective father-in-law clutches his faith.

At this point in his life, Mickey's vocabulary has been limited to "Oh, boy!" and "Naaah." As the holiday begins to crumble around him, Mickey suddenly announces in an accent straight out of Calcutta that he has known all of these people in a past life, and he, Lucius, has been invited by Mickey to warn them that they're sticking to their principles at the expense of each other. Lucius' presence, needless to say, challenges Randy's atheism as boldly as Phil's Catholicism.

What elevates Greetings! from the status of interesting novelty is the cast. I have always been able to rely on expert ensemble acting from Stage West, and director Jim Covault and his quintet of actors don't disappoint. Indeed, the undercurrent of cooperation and professionalism that usually crystallizes their performances is even more important to relay the impact of the family recriminations in this piece. Jerry Russell and Jody McCoy make smashing blue-collar Catholic parents: Russell is cantankerously devout (or is that devoutly cantankerous?) and McCoy is a tough hide over a tender core, a metamorphosis no doubt necessary for living with this cuss for decades. Charlton B. Gavitt begins to unravel with the opening scene as the straying son, and Nicole Case as his Semitic, heathen fiancee nicely resists the ethnic Noo Yawk ballsiness that a broader interpretation of the character might encourage.

Michael Petty as Mickey/Lucius is something more of a question mark. He handles the non-speaking part of his role as the handicapped Mickey with skill and a minimum affectation; this is no small feat, since an actor without words as a tool of expression often chooses to overagitate his body in compensation. But when Mickey becomes the aloof, fiercely logical Lucius, he throws the play's comic-dramatic tango out of balance. I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Lucius speak with an Indian accent, but that rather caricaturish touch results in an all-seeing entity that's part Deepak Chopra, part Mork from Ork. Since I'm not a big fan of either, I had to wade against the current of his vocal mannerisms to rescue the gems of wisdom.

And there are plenty of those to be had in Greetings!, a play that rather boldly reminds us that "the reason for the season" is often an excuse to belittle other people who don't follow your God's rulebook. Of course, the arrogance of science and rationality can be just as divisive. In staging a debate between Christianity and atheism, principle and love, knowledge and faith, Tom Dudzick and Stage West have raised issues that sorely need addressing in these neoconservative times. I'm just not sure if starting this argument at the Christmas dinner table is going to win many converts.

Greetings! runs through December 27. Call (817)


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