BY SANDY STAGGS
Old rivalries, family secrets and ample amounts of sherry lead to an amusing yuletide climax in Centre Stage’s new holiday comedy “Happy Christmas, Shirley.”
And when I say “new,” I mean the U.S. premiere of this delightful British work by Louise Roche, as Centre Stage continues its tradition of eschewing seminal classics in favor of presenting the latest in contemporary holiday fare.
Last year, audiences were treated to the hilarious Southern farce “Let Nothing You Dismay” and in 2015, the North American premiere of “Let It Snow.”
“Happy Christmas, Shirley” falls somewhere in between these Christmas shows. It’s set in England, hence the “Happy Christmas” instead of the “merry” (or inebriated) phrase we use here in the states.
And like “Let Nothing You Dismay,” there is an expectant mother in the mix.
And this comedy is buoyed by an enormous and experienced cast lead by Judy Klein (last seen as on this stage as one of the Pigeon sisters in “The Odd Couple”) as the titular Shirley and Shannon Rossi as Carol, who play domineering middle-aged sisters who bicker and incessantly during their annual Christmas gathering.
Both actors are superb in their brutally honest portrayals of string-willed women who know exactly where to insert the emotional carving knife to inflict the most pain and misery.
From overseeing the light decorations to her strict holiday timetable, Shirley is the consummate taskmaster, while Carol is the critic, never letting her sibling forget her nuclear family is dysfunctional and far from perfection, including the fact that Shirley’s daughter Donna (Jessie Davis) is not married and 9 months pregnant with no father in the picture. And that her other daughter Karen (Rebecca Rene Kelley) is living in sin with her boyfriend played by Luke Brooks, recently seen in the Agatha Christie murder mystery “The Mousetrap” at Greenville Little Theatre.
And both sisters take pleasure in commandeering their respective spouses (the cast’s only real Brit Trevor Furlong) and Rod McClendon (in his third Centre Stage holiday play in a row) as Cameron.
And then there’s the family patriarch Nan, embodied by the always-stupendous MJ Maurer, who gets to spew one rib-tickling barb after another, both in her rest home and at the Christmas dinner table with the aid of some yuletide sherry.
That is, when she is broken-up over her only son’s early demise only a few years earlier.
Which brings us to Carrie Roberts’ brief but powerful heart-tugging performance as Jan, Nan’s widowed daughter-in-law who still joins the clan at Christmas. Her role is small but Roberts brims with underlying sentiment even while the others carry on with the gift-giving and holiday meal.
There are other minor characters played by seasoned actors in “Happy Christmas, Shirley” that don’t get much stage time but never squander an opportunity to make their impact: Bruce Meahl and Kelly Wallace (in an under-developed storyline) and Rebecca Payne are Shirley’s neighbors and Maurice Reed is an unexpected elderly guest who brings his Kris Kringle charm to the table.
The play is amusing and uplifting in its finale but never rises to greatness or absurdity. Instead, the story is conventional and not unlike most stressful family gatherings many of us experience every year.
But the cast is excellent and the set design is warm and cozy.
Jeff Catanese, co-founder of the Attic Salt Theatre Company in Asheville, directs this dramedy with an earnest, delicate hand.
My only criticism (besides a peculiar-looking baked turkey prop) is some of the lighting and staging transitions. The action takes place in several rooms in the home and outside and the lights are constantly up and down on parts of the stage to draw the audience to the conversation at hand. But while dialogue occurs in one room, the rest of the cast freeze in darkness. I don’t know a better way to stage it, but it was quite distracting at times especially in the scenes downstairs.
And don’t miss the art of Tim and Elizabeth Speaker on display in the Gallery at Centre Stage through Monday, January 8. Hours are Tuesday through Friday from 2-6 p.m. The exhibit is presented in cooperation with the Metropolitan Arts Council. This partnership is sponsored by South State Bank. Admission is free.
“Happy Christmas, Shirley” continues through Sunday, December 17. Shows are Tuesday – Saturday at 8 p.m. with matinees on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call the box office at (864) 233-6733 or visit www.centrestage.org.