The Christmas Foundling
by Norman Allen (inspired by the stories of Bret Harte)
Produced by Journeymen Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,” Robert Frost said famously, in The Death of the Hired Hand, “they have to take you in.”
The very young Tom (Sean McCoy) has to go somewhere, and right quick, for his lease on his mother’s womb is coming to an end, and so is she. He ends up in the rough cabin of two grizzled gold-panners; Old Jake (Jim Zidar) and Hoke (JJ Area). They take him in, and he is home.
It is Christmas Eve 1850, and we are in a hard place – Piney Gulch, California, a settlement composed exclusively of men who have given themselves over to the frantic pursuit of riverbed gold and to the dream of consequent riches. Three of them, so transformed by their enterprise that they are known only by their places of origin, become uncles of sort to Tom – Boston (Scott McCormick), Moscow (Andy Brownstein) and Georgia (Joshua Drew). But for Hoke, Piney Gulch’s treasure is not what is in the streams but what is not in the air – the toxicity of civilization, with its attendant fierceness, hypocrisy and cruelty.
Ten years later, the dead woman’s sister Sarah (Becky Peters) arrives in Piney Gulch, determined to learn the fate of her lost sibling. When she, a thirty-eight year old spinster, meets her nephew for the first time, she determines to take him back East. Sarah is neither cruel nor arrogant, and she is susceptible to the raw and exotic beauty of the Sierras. But at the news that neither Tom nor anyone else in Piney Gulch can read or write English, she becomes implacable. She offers to take Hoke, whom she has come to like and admire, with them. But the Westerner, already done in once by the horrors of city life, does not have it in him to take them on a second time.
The period of separation, done crisply through an exchange of letters (exposition and the passage of time throughout the play is handled straightforwardly, by narrative passages aimed directly at the audience) brings wisdom to all parties, and when the resolution, sweet as it is, comes, it is neither unnatural nor contrived.
Norman Allen, one of the area’s best playwrights, has written a fresh Christmas story, moving without being cloying, and it is generally well served by Journeymen’s reserved production. Like many Christmas productions, it is suitable for children. Its tough-mindedness, though, makes it a rarer thing: suitable for children who have passed the first blush of naiveté, and who seek out the world of Real Things.
Allen and Director Gregg Henry have presented a production with an authentic nineteenth-century sensibility. Allen calls to mind not only the push into the American West but the voyages two centuries earlier of Europeans eager to escape the stink of civilization by running an errand into the wilderness that was America. “Do you have any animals?” [back East], Tom asks Sarah, having previously scoffed at her description of Beacon Hill (ascendable in five minutes) and the placid Charles River. He then gleefully recounts the time he barely escaped being breakfast for a mountain lion, thanks to Hoke’s heroism. In so doing, he repeats America’s answer to Europe: we live in a large land, and it makes our deeds mighty. This answer presaged the dynamism of American writers like Twain, London and later Hemmingway against the European tradition of drawing-room literature.
Henry provided the production with a useful economy of expression and movement; scenes which could have been played over the top were not, as “over the top” was in the nineteenth century reserved for such tasks as killing mountain lions. This approach particularly served Peters, who played Sarah with a restraint which enhanced her dignity and, ultimately, her credibility.
Area’s performance was also notable. He played the sort of man who, having taken fatherhood on deliberately, dedicates himself to it as a life’s work, much as a monk might dedicate himself to prayer. For him, everything is on hold until the child steps into the picture; and after that the child’s pace becomes his own. Area’s portrayal of Hoke was a letter-perfect picture of this sort of man.
Indeed, there was not a bad performance on stage. An able child actor is a rare thing, but McCoy is one of them. McCormick, Brownstein, and Drew perform at the high level we have come to expect of them; Drew particularly imbues his character with an amusing unselfconscious stupidity. And Zidar creates a character with warm grace sufficient to establish the relationship between the audience and the world onstage, which is the task Allen has assigned to Old Jake.
While The Christmas Foundling provided unmistakable pleasures, it fell short of being a fully satisfying drama. Part of the fault was Allen’s. The text suggests that the birth of Tom transformed Hoke from a laconic curmudgeon to a full, loving man but we see so little of Hoke before Tom’s arrival that we must take it on faith. What’s more, Sarah arrives so early in the play that we do not get a chance to see the bond between Hoke and Tom before she arrives, thus muting the conflict. Part of the fault was the production’s, including especially the unfortunate sound: what was apparently meant to suggest gale-force winds sounded suspiciously like waves on a beach, and many of the cues landed imprecisely or not at all. Finally, I disagree with Henry’s decision to place much of the dialogue upstage. While the audience could easily hear and understand actors’ resonant voices, it added a distance to a play which depends on achieving emotional intimacy.
At the end of the play – and this can only happen in a Christmas play – Old Jake announces the piece’s moral: that we are all orphans, waiting to find the right family. The observation is problematical; many people seem quite comfortable with their family of birth. There is another lesson to this good show, though, which while not announced was pronounced: that it is ennobling to love and help a child, whether of your blood or not. It is a thought which must have occurred to the original Christmas Foundling’s stepfather, Joseph of Nazareth.
The Christmas Foundling is playing at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE, Wednesdays through Sundays until December 30. Wednesday and Thursday shows being at 7.30; Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8, and there are 2.00 matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. All shows $20 (seniors and students $15) except December 14, 20, and 27, which are pay what you can. No show Sunday, December 24.