A long-established tradition obliges acting troupes to present shows tuned to holiday themes at this time of year. Audiences expect them and -- as noted in the farce "Inspecting Carol" -- the success of the Christmas play can give a huge bottom-line boost to a company's entire season. Hence repeated stagings, year after year, of titles that range from the reverent ("Godspell") to classics ("It's a Wonderful Life") to comedy ("A Christmas Story") and even blasphemous ("Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge").
Choosing to go with none of the above, Anchorage Community Theatre commissioned local thespian P. Shane Mitchell to write this year's Christmas script and give it an Alaska twist. The result, "Christmas on the Yukon," is a melodrama dedicated to the virtues of hope, pluck, miracles and the importance of family -- with a few carols and the nativity narrative from the Gospel of St. Luke thrown in.
The action is set in Doc Spencer's Trading Post during the Gold Rush era. The post is apparently on the Alaska side of the border (though the program says "in the Yukon Territory") not far from Eagle. Adam Clark's nicely detailed set includes log walls, a foot-pedal organ, wood stove, animal pelts and a few homey Victorian touches.
The main characters are the daughters of the post's owners: prim and boy-conscious 15-year-old Edith (Roberta Cecere) and her pesky little sister Emma Mae (Morgan Stratton). They exchange sibling swipes and reveal that they're worried. The folks have taken off to help a neighbor woman in labor. A blizzard hits and the girls can't help but wonder whether their parents will return in time for Christmas or if they're stuck in the storm -- or if something worse has happened.
They have the company of their aunt Betsy (Shanette Harper) and a trapper (David Flavin). But as things drag on, they begin to face the real possibility of a boring Christmas dinner of beans, bacon and biscuits -- and no mom or dad.
Things get more exciting when a Canadian Mountie (Ivan Taylor) and his Athabascan guide (Marisa Garrigues) stumble in, needing shelter after falling through ice. They're looking for a wanted murderer, they tell the Spencer girls. What we don't learn right away is that the man they're trailing -- extradition papers in hand -- is the girls' uncle Jim (Douglas Causey). But that's beside the point, at least at first, since it's obvious that Edith is developing a crush on the Mountie and that he has coveted ingredients for a Christmas pie among his supplies.
The script leans heavily on narrative exposition. The girls talk about missing their old home in Massachusetts. Aunt Betsy talks about how she met her husband. The guide recounts how she was once rescued by Jim. The Mountie and the trapper recount Christmases with their respective families. And, as problems arise, we hear over and over again that "it will take a miracle" to fix them.
What the play tries to offer in warmth, it lacks in depth. The roles have all the character development of the Sailor Boy cartoon on a box of pilot bread. They are utterly static, with each person at the end remaining pretty much as we first encountered them -- and no bad guys in sight.
Perhaps a play without either an antagonist or protagonist is what audiences require of a Christmas show, though there are some well-known examples of the genre that differ, like "A Christmas Carol" and "Christmas Belles" and "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
If handed the assignment to address in a family-friendly way the subject of separation at Yuletide in the Great White North, it's likely that half of the Alaska authors who participate in the "Overnighters" events -- in which playwrights are given a theme and asked to come up with a script in 12 hours -- could have produced something more tightly dramatic. But a more dramatic, meatier story might risk coming off like a lump of coal in the stocking of our Christmasy expectations. "Yukon" goes the other way and feels like a school play conceived and written by the class.
The smaller roles of Doc Spencer, his wife and their hired helper are played by Marty Baumann, Nancy Guiley and Keaton Evans. Bill Cotton will take the Doc Spencer part Dec. 4-8. The two-hour show is a co-production with TBA Theatre.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
Christmas on the Yukon
Will be presented at 3 p.m. Sundays and 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 22 at Anchorage Community Theatre, 1133 E. 70th Ave. Tickets are available by calling 868-4913 or at actalaska.org.
By MIKE DUNHAM