Christmastime brings a special magic, and while holiday movies may delight and amuse us, there is really nothing comparable to live theater at this time of year.
Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre always delivers, and this year’s holiday production, the world premiere of Adam Szymkowicz’s “The Christmas Tree Farm,” mixes warmth and humor, nostalgia and grief, and hope for the future in 80 captivating minutes.
The petite, pixie-like Nandita Shenoy, in a leather apron and flannel shirt, plays Bri, the owner of a small-town Christmas tree farm. She is both the narrator of and a participant in the play’s events as four actors portray a wide range of characters who come to shop for a tree but wind up falling in and out of love, remembering the past, savoring the present, and pondering the future.
The theater’s small stage has been reimagined as the farm, with snow-covered trees, a table with eggnog and treats for visitors, and a booth where Bri conducts her business. There is a magic that happens at Christmas tree farms at holiday time, Bri tells the audience, and we watch as short vignettes play out with characters young and old, gay and straight, happy and sad.
Since Kevin R. Free took over as artistic director a year ago, Mile Square Theatre has made diversity a touchstone of its productions, and that is true here as well. The cast includes Keivana Wallace, a young Black woman bubbling over with confidence and charisma; sassy redhead Sarah Elizabeth Grace; cherubic everyman Nathaniel Kent; and the tall, bearded Aaron Parker Fouhey.
With the addition of a jacket, hat, scarf or glasses, or subtle nuances of diction and bearing, the actors transform themselves into a wide range of characters: young gay men who come to lie on a blanket, stare at the stars and talk about their dreams; a distinguished pair of married novelists whose own story has been denied a happy ending; high school sweethearts reunited after decades; a group of department store Santas who meet after work at the farm for a swig of eggnog and a bit of bonding. Loneliness is a recurring theme, not just for the farm’s visitors but for Bri herself — a reminder that the holidays can bring sadness as well as joy.
Just when you start to think that all these vignettes could be the stuff of one of those vapid, treacly Hallmark holiday movies, a filmmaker shows up, interested in using the farm as a location, and it turns out that those are exactly the kind of movies he specializes in.
Director Rachel Dart has done a marvelous job, not just directing traffic in the comings and goings of so many characters, but nailing the timing of each comedic opportunity as well. Smiles and laughs abound, as do moments that may bring you close to tears.
The scenic design takes your breath away; it feels like Christmas the moment you enter the theater and see Bri’s gaily decorated booth and a lot full of spruce, pine and fir trees waiting to be taken home. And the cast opens and closes the show with a Christmas carol sung in exquisite five-part harmony (Jeff Ostermueller did the arrangement).
Kudos also to the company and Free for supporting contemporary playwrights. This is the second world premiere of a new play this season, and I can see “The Christmas Tree Farm” being performed at high schools, colleges and regional theaters for years to come.
At the end of the play, the mayor comes to the farm to make a short speech, and Bri describes the crowd — all the characters we’ve met in the course of the evening. Then the mayor connects two plugs, all the trees light up, and it truly feels like Christmas.
Broadway has its charms, of course, but don’t deny yourself the experience of seeing professional theater in a small, intimate space at affordable prices, surrounded by members of your community. That, Christmastime or not, is truly magic.
“The Christmas Tree Farm” runs through Dec. 23 at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.
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