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'Tru Grace: Holiday Memoirs' of Childhood Journeys

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Tru Grace: Holiday Memoirs

Based on stories by Truman Capote and Grace Paley

Adapted and Directed by Wesley Savick; Scenic Design, Will Cabell; Costume Design, Heidi Hermiller; Lighting Design, Caleb Jon Magoon; Sound Design/Composer, Evan Harlan; Props Coordinator, John Nillson; Stage Manager, Kayla G. Sullivan; Assistant Stage Manager, Aimee Jacques

CAST: Ken Baltin, Michael Forden Walker, Debra Wise      Youth Ensemble: Juan Arevalo, Sofia Engelman, Sofia Kaufman, Sophie Lipkin, Rosa Munson-Blatt, Bence Szechenyi, Naomi Zahler, Kyla Frieden, Isabella Jones, Kiva McElhiney, Oliver Sussman, Isabela Trumble, Daniel Walsh

Performances through December 27 by Underground Railway Theatre at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge                                       Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.centralsquaretheater.org

It's a show for kids; it's a show for grownups. Stop! You're both right! Underground Railway Theatre's delightful doubleheader of The Loudest Voice by Grace Paley and A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote is sewn together like a patchwork quilt to form Tru Grace: Holiday Memoirs, a warm and colorful collage that is as funny as it is sincere. Combining the 1930s stories of a Russian immigrant family from the Bronx and a small boy and his peculiar cousin in Alabama, Tru Grace opens a window into two diverse experiences of the Great Depression, both grounded in love.

Director Wesley Savick adapted the Paley and Capote works for the stage and wisely opted to employ a story-telling technique. In The Loudest Voice, Shirley Abramowitz (Sofia Kaufman at this performance, also played by Kiva McElhiney) is both narrator and protagonist, explaining how she is chosen for the lead in her school's Christmas pageant because of her ability to project. The voice that is constantly being ssshhh'd at home makes her a star in stressed out drama teacher MR. Hilton's eyes. Whatever misgivings her mother (Debra Wise) has about the little Jewish girl singing Christmas carols and acting in the Nativity play are mollified by her more assimilated father's (Ken Baltin) easygoing attitude, as well as by Mrs. Abramowitz's inclination to kvell over her daughter's achievement. In addition to giving Shirley the chance to shine and rescue his production from total chaos, MR. Hilton (Michael Forden Walker) unintentionally teaches all of the children a lesson about accepting each other's differences and appreciating the value of working together toward a common goal.

As it happens, Kaufman has a big, clear voice and seems to relish her opportunity to reach the last rows, and has just the right amount of ham (you'll pardon the expression) in her to carry the weight of The Loudest Voice on her slender shoulders. She also sings sweetly along with the other talented children who play her classmates and a variety of roles in the pageant. Best of all, the youth ensemble acts like kids putting on a school show with characteristic boredom, inability to remember their lines, and spotlight-stealing. Special kudos to Bence Szechenyi for his pantomimed impression of Jesus on the cross. Baltin conveys a quiet strength and understanding of the world in the dual roles of Mr. Abramowitz and Mr. Bialik, a local merchant, but also embodies the accepting, devoted husband and proud, loving dad.

A Christmas Memory benefits from the first person narration by Walker as the college-age Capote, reminiscing about the holiday traditions of his childhood in the rural South with his childlike, eccentric cousin Sook (Wise). I was instantly absorbed by Capote's language as his words paint a scene and weave a mood with the utmost simplicity. For example, he describes the coins that Buddy (the seven-year old Truman) and the sixty-something Sook have squirreled away as "nickels and quarters worn smooth as creek pebbles," and as an expression of sheer joy and contentment while flying a kite on Christmas morning, she says, "I could leave the world with today in my eyes."

While Walker tells the story, he morphs into the younger version of his character by removing his glasses, changing his jacket and hat, and speaking in a more excitable tone. He brings us into the kitchen of the household where he was being raised by his mother's female relatives, Sook's bailiwick where she announces one late November morning, "It's fruitcake weather!" From there, the two are on a mission to gather their funds to buy (or forage) all the necessary ingredients to produce 31 fruitcakes and send them off to friends and strangers they admire as emissaries of comfort and joy. Buddy and Sook work like dogs, but it is a labor of love and they make a good team. The same can be said of their journey to find a Christmas tree. Basically, they just enjoy being together, no matter what the task, as they fight off the feelings of isolation they face within the rest of the family and society.

Wise doffs her URT Artistic Director hat to participate in both plays. In a mesmerizing turn, she inhabits the character of Sook, this simple elderly woman who considers Buddy to be her best friend. As depicted by Capote, she wears a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress and tennis shoes. Her posture is hunched and Wise's face expresses every thought and emotion, be it delight, confusion, fear, or love. By allowing herself to appear frumpy and slightly dim, and employing a syrupy Southern accent, Wise realistically creates on the stage the woman who Capote so artistically creates on the page and touches our hearts.

Reflecting the economic hardships of the Depression, Tru Grace has frugality written all over it with minimal set pieces, but there is incredibly clever use of cardboard as school desks and cartoonish talking neighborhood windows. With the limited scenery, greater importance is given to Caleb Jon Magoon's extraordinary lighting which suggests city skylines, spindly trees, swirling snow, and setting sun. For the most part, Heidi Hermiller's costumes evoke simplicity and poverty, but Mr. Abramowitz wears a good suit and the real-life Capote is called to mind by Walker in his trademark fedora and muffler wrapped around his neck. Both plays are enriched by piano accompaniment and music composed by Evan Harlan, as well as some traditional songs.

Tru Grace is acted and directed with heart. Savick gets natural performances from the children who also appear to be enjoying themselves. Ultimately, both of these scenes are about children on a journey, although Shirley and Buddy may not recognize it themselves in the moment. Telling the tales as recollection allows them a vantage point from which to look back and rediscover the lessons and love they experienced in these moments in time. It is exactly the kind of poignant story we want to hear at the holidays and a wonderful gift from the Underground Railway Theatre.

 

Photo: Sofia Kaufman as Shirley

 

 

 

 

 

 


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