Ashley Robinson, Silvano Spagnuolo, and Alice Ripley in Duane Poole’s adaptation of the Truman Capote story “A Christmas Memory.” | CAROL ROSEGG
If you’ve had your fill of “Christmas Carols” and “Nutcrackers” for the holiday season, a cautionary advisory is in order for the option served up this year by Irish Repertory Theatre: fruitcake.
But before you turn up your nose and head for the hills, hear me out. This fruitcake is in the form of a musicalized version of Truman Capote’s deeply personal short story “A Christmas Memory,” where Buddy, a celebrated author not unlike Capote himself, visits his boyhood home in 1955 after a 20-year absence. He is flooded with memories of a blissful time when he’d make the fruity confections with a spinster relative named Sook, who stepped in when his divorced parents abandoned him.
“It’s fruitcake weather,” Sook would gleefully proclaim.
Musicalized Truman Capote tale strains to recall happy golden days of yore
This nutty, gooey labor of love, adapted by Duane Poole, is actually not half bad. Under the direction of Charlotte Moore, “A Christmas Memory” manages to avoid being too cloying or heavy, balancing the sweet, lighthearted homespun sentiments of a simpler time with the tart, harsh realities of growing up a misfit in rural Alabama in the Great Depression.
Fruitcake, as it turns out, is particularly apt, since Sook is a bit of a loon and prone to depressive spells. The effeminate young Buddy is deemed a sissy by another guardian, Jennie, who threatens to ship the boy off to a military academy to toughen him up.
“Fruitcake?,” Jennie intones. “The amount of time you two spend together. You’ll grow up soft and it’s a hard world.”
The affable cast is led by none other than Alice Ripley, Tony Award-winner for “Next to Normal” (and nominated for the original “Side Show”). Ripley teases out layers of warmth and complexity from Sook, who obviously needs Buddy as much as he needs her.
Ashley Robinson imbues the grown-up Buddy with a tender yearning that, as he wrestles with ghosts of Christmas past, becomes tinged with regret. Virginia Ann Woodruff is excellent as Anna, the soulful housekeeper who helps the nostalgic author come to terms with his fraught history. As the stern Jennie, Nancy Hess reveals a caring center beneath a tough exterior. Silvano Spagnuolo, as the young Buddy, does his best in a role even a seasoned adult actor would find demanding. What he lacks in precision and nuance he makes up for in charm.
Capote, as everybody knows, was the notoriously homosexual author of landmarks like the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and his “non-fiction novel” “In Cold Blood.” Astute fans will recognize the pesky neighbor tomboy, Nelle Harper (nicely portrayed by a pigtailed, gap-toothed Taylor Richardson), who also grew up to become a famous author, Harper Lee (“To Kill A Mockingbird”).
To tug on our heartstrings even harder, they’ve cast an adorable scruffy terrier as Sook and Buddy’s furry playmate.
If the intention was to create an intimate, folksy chamber musical, the creative team may have gone too far — the production feels so constricted it has scant room to breathe. Crammed into the tiny stage at the DR2 Theatre (the Irish Rep’s home is being renovated), the seven-person ensemble must navigate gingerly around James Noone’s imaginative, surreal wooden set.
The songs by Larry Grossman (music) and Carol Hall (lyrics) draw from American musical vocabulary of the blues, vaudeville, and ragtime from the early 20th century. One lively number finds the entire company strumming on ukuleles and strutting to Barry McNabb’s jaunty choreography. Many numbers, however, are too lean and deserve more support than the skimpy three-member “orchestra” can provide.
“A Christmas Memory” works hard to articulate the conflicting swirl of emotions surrounding family, holidays, and going home again. This often touching yet imperfect production, like a homemade holiday treat, promises to unleash a flood of romanticized yuletide memories for even the grinchiest of theatergoers.
A CHRISTMAS MEMORY | Irish Repertory Theatre | DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15th St. | Through Jan. 4: Tue., Thu. at 7p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed., Sat., Sun. at 3 p.m. | $70 at irishrep.org or 866-811-4111 | One hr., 40 mins., with intermission