NEW LONDON, Wis. (WFRV) – A mother loves to write Christmas letters each year to tuck into her family’s cards to family and friends.
From that simple start, prolific playwright Pat Cook creates the comical, sometimes silly, sometimes touching, “PS, Merry Christmas” that Wolf River Theatrical Troupe is presenting perhaps for the first time in this region.
The audience is a fly on the wall for what happens this year with Karen Brookshire and her Mr. Fixit/Mr. Mess-up husband, their almost-adult children, Karen’s spunky sisters, Karen’s child self from memory and Karen’s pearls-of-wisdom mother.
In an imagination scene, Virginia O’Hanlon visits, too. She’s the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” girl, who wrote the ultimate Christmas letter. Pat Cook’s point for Karen’s mind is this: Christmas letters count.
Along the way, Karen imagines important years in Christmas letters of such guys as William Shakespeare, Hannibal and Wyatt Earp. Turns out, Wyatt mistook the O.K. Corral for a singing group, the O.K. Chorale. That’s at least in the mind of Karen, who envisions her Christmas letters earning the Pulitzer Prize.
In this year’s letter of Karen (Elaine Muller), her husband, mess-up Marlon (Jim Ehrhardt), live-at-home college freshman son, Thad (Caleb Lauer), and boy-hungry daughter, Katie (Haley Leweallen), discover the “nothing happened” year includes embarrassments for each.
Karen’s sisters, Dodo (Debbie Ostrander) and Gretchen (Kay Ellingson), drop in every once in a while to trade colorful insults with Marlon while wearing colorful outfits.
Margie Brown, the heart of the troupe, directs with a sense of let’s-have-fun for the players.
With Elaine Muller as the catalyst as Karen, stuff keeps happening that the actors can play off of in lively ways, though opening night Wednesday had some struggles.
A prime scene of fun is when Haley Lewallen, as phone-happy, boy-crazy Katie, delivers a scholarly report – pointer in hand and complete with a color-coded graph – detailing the week-by-week progress of three guys in her life.
Caleb Lauer has another clever scene as oh-so-typical lippy brother and getting-by student, Thad, reveals his “accomplishments” as he unloads the contents of a cardboard box.
Marlene Scheid, as Gramma Kushman (Karen’s mother), provides the play’s/production’s heart-tug clincher scene. And Gramma telling Lilly Bachman as Young Karen to always do her best is an oh-so-sweet reminder for everyone.
“PS, Merry Christmas” = nice.
Running time: One hour, 23 minutes
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Dec. 1, 2, 8 and 9 and 2 p.m. Dec. 10
Creative: Playwright – Pat Cook; producer/director – Margie Brown; stage manager – Brooklyn Billington; lights and sound – Christopher Berberich, Stephanie Friebohle; costuming and hair – cast, Margie Brown; set design and decorating – Margie Brown; set construction – Christopher Berberich; props – Margie Brown, Brooklyn Billington
Karen Brookshire – Elaine Muller
Marlon Brookshire – Jim Ehrhardt
Thad Brookshire – Caleb Lauer
Katie Brookshire – Haley Lewallen
Grandma Kushman, Mrs. Barnhouse – Marlene Scheid
Virginia, Young Karen – Lilly Bachman
Dodo – Debbie Ostrander
Gretchen – Kay Ellingson
Waiter, Antique Expert – Samuel Stillwell
NEXT: “Jesse Aron’s Holiday Tribute to Rock ‘n’ Roll” with special guest Molly Brown, Dec. 17.
THE VENUE: Wolf River Theatre at 304 St. John’s Place in downtown New London is home to Wolf River Theatrical Troupe performances. The building was built as a church in 1906 and most previously was used as Real Opportunities Outreach following its years as Christian Cornerstone Church. The exterior is red brick, with crosses atop the roof and on a side entryway. The rectangular auditorium seats 80 on moveable chairs. The former altar serves as the stage, with an adorned wooden beam and two columns with Corinthian capitals on each side establishing the stage front. The beam holds theatrical lighting fixtures. High above on the walls, wooden shutters cover window spaces. The performance space is unique among theaters in the region. It is especially deep. The stage is about 30 feet wide and at least 35 feet deep. To the left of the stage is the entrance to rest rooms. In the back of the house is the box office and a small area for concessions and displays, including a newspaper clipping from 1980 when the building was an Episcopal church.