A Breath of Fresh Air for the Holidays
As every family has its Christmas traditions, so does every Christmas-themed story. By far the most important tradition—whether in Dickens, Capra, or the National Lampoon—is that by story’s end all conflicts must be happily resolved. In this respect, Kate Bishop’s new play, A Peppermint Patty Christmas, which opened Friday at the Strand Theater in Baltimore, doesn’t disappoint. But Peppermint Patty does feature a twist that allows us to admire the familiar Christmas patterns as though for the first time. The heroine of this story, Patty Bialecki, is a lesbian, and she has returned to her blue-collar Baltimore home with an ulterior motive for the holidays: to introduce her unsuspecting parents (and somewhat-more-suspecting sister and nephew) to her partner of seven years.
That Patty is a jock and her partner a bespectacled intellectual named Marcie will surprise no one who has ever seen a Peanuts cartoon, of course, but to Bishop’s credit she doesn’t belabor the allusion. (When the play does, inevitably, riff on pop culture, Bishop aims her funniest barbs at another animated classic, the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Equally to Bishop’s credit, though the Strand commissioned her “to write a comedy Christmas story that focuses on lesbian issues,” Peppermint Patty aspires to be more than merely an “issues” play. Even Marcie, a graduate student raised by Muslim parents, is less interested in discussing sexual identities than in deconstructing Christmas—her ostensible reason for accompanying Patty to Baltimore is to conduct research for her dissertation by “studying” a traditional Polish-Catholic Christmas in Baltimore. (The Bialeckis seem mostly amused by this idea, but they do their best to accommodate Patty’s “college friend.”)
Bishop gives Marcie a few too many impassioned speeches on Christmas as “a tool of capitalism”—and the Bialeckis can seem unbelievably polite as this relative stranger questions their values—but the play’s real drama lies elsewhere. At least for the audience, there seems little doubt that Patty’s family will love and accept her, regardless of sexual orientation. As with all stories in which happy endings are preordained, our pleasure comes mainly from watching likable people realize their hearts’ desires.
Fortunately, Bishop has peopled her play with a memorable blend of personalities, and the fine group of actors assembled by director Da’Minique M. Williams makes it easy to root for each character. As Patty, Mattie Rogers embodies the kind of easygoing soul for whom no problem can’t be solved with a sense of humor and a willingness to improvise … except possibly coming out to her family. Rogers and Kamilah Sharufa, who plays Marcie, generate such natural chemistry, especially during their precious few moments alone, it seems inconceivable that anyone might object to their union.
The first Bialecki to realize the truth about Marcie is Patty’s teenage nephew, Sam, who has been at war with his mother, Ronnie—Patty’s older sister—since she took out a restraining order on his abusive father … or step-father (or maybe just Ronnie’s boyfriend—I never quite put those pieces together). Sam is played by Melissa Tillery—a woman in her 20s—and initially I feared this bit of casting would pull me from the world of the play, but within five minutes of Tillery’s entrance this fear vanished—she disappears completely inside the role, carrying herself—and speaking Bishop’s pitch-perfect dialogue—with the feigned tough-guy posturing of a sensitive adolescent terrified to appear sensitive.
As Ronnie, Caroline C. Kiebach paints an affecting portrait of a naturally spirited young woman dying a slow, inner death from the strain of poverty combined with single-motherhood. As Patty and Ronnie’s mother, Rita, Lucie Poirier is a wonderfully eccentric comedienne without sacrificing the beating heart of this underappreciated housewife; Poirier’s Rita suggests one possible endpoint for Ronnie—a woman weathered by life but still bravely committed to living.
The only actor who seems out of place is Alex Hacker as the Bialecki patriarch, Ted. Granted, Ted is hamstrung by the least convincing part of Bishop’s script—unwilling to explore fully the possibility that the family will reject Patty and Marcie, Bishop instead manufactures drama by making Ted a drunk who nearly gambles away his family’s home until Patty engineers a last-minute Christmas miracle. Even so, Hacker seems to float in a different atmosphere than his scene partners—perhaps the intention is to suggest an absent-minded, alcoholic haze, but the result is an unfocused performance.
As has become the Strand’s own tradition, the set—designed by David Cunningham, with lighting by Matt Klein—consists mainly of platforms and portable boxes bounded by a pair of gorgeously painted walls. In a clever twist, Christmas decorations double as props: the telephone is made of candy canes (as are cigarettes), the remote control is a gift box, and the cabbages and potatoes that make up Christmas dinner are tinsel and bulbs wrapped in paper. These unexpected touches reinvigorate the familiar—a perfect description, in fact, of Bishop’s delightful play.
A Peppermint Patty Christmas is playing at the Strand Theater, located on 1823 N. Charles Street, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 P.M. through December 18th. There is one Wednesday performance, on December 8th at 7 P.M., and one Sunday performance, on December 12th at 3 P.M. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. For more information, call 443-874-4917 or go to www.strandtheatercompany.org.