Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“The Santa Diaries II” debuts in Faribault with humor & so much more December 11, 2018

From The Merlin Players Facebook page.

 

WHEN I ATTENDED The Merlin Players’ performance of The Santa Diaries four years ago at the Paradise Center for the Arts, I laughed. And I cried. Playwrights and performers brought a moving message coupled with comedy to the stage.

And now they’ve done it again in A Christmas Wedding—The Santa Diaries II. I attended Saturday evening, a day after the play debuted. Writers Laura Ambler and Mala Burt flew in from Maryland to watch as a talented cast—many of whom performed in the first Santa Diaries—took the stage.

The play focuses on a Hollywood couple returning to their hometown for their desired small town Christmas wedding. Except others have other ideas, including making the wedding a reality TV event. So the story evolves with humor aplenty, conflict and discerning what’s most important in life. Choose fame and fortune? Or love, happiness and contentment?

I realized part way into the play that I was smiling nearly non-stop. That says a lot for the writing and the performing. But when the script got serious, my thoughts turned introspective also. Like the characters in the play, we all have choices to make, especially this time of year. It’s easy to get caught up in finding the perfect gift, the material things that we think will make us, or our loved ones, happy. But really, it is the gift of time, of being with family and friends, that’s most important. I left the theater with that point reinforced.

I also left with awe at The Merlin Players’ performance, echoed by the playwrights with whom I chatted briefly. Laura Ambler praised the cast. I did, too, But I also praised her writing and that of co-writer Mala Burt. It takes a good, strong script to make a play successful as much as good, strong performers and production staff.

And there were many talented actors and actresses. Plus singers. Solos by Mandie Siems and Paige Pick held a quality of pureness. I could sense the raptness of the audience as the two sang.

I especially appreciated the ways in which the play became distinctly Minnesotan, even distinctly Faribault. Local radio personality Gordy Kosfeld voiced the radio announcer. Casseroles became hotdish, at least in one reference. Poinsettias set on stage came from Donahue’s Greenhouse, so said one of the performers. Details like that endear a performance to a local audience.

The playwrights also endeared themselves to me in their appreciation of Faribault, telling me how much they enjoyed the fresh snow and exploring my community. I loved hearing that. Locals don’t always appreciate Faribault’s historic setting and small town feel. This really is a special place.

And that includes the Paradise Center for the Arts. I am so grateful to have this arts center in the heart of our historic downtown with professional theater and so much more available locally.

FYI: Additional performances of A Christmas Wedding–The Santa Diaries II are set for 7:30 p.m. on December 13, 14, and 15 and at 2 p.m. December 16 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue North, Faribault.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-see holiday play: The Santa Diaries December 10, 2014

I THOUGHT I MIGHT make it through a local holiday theatrical production without crying.

But I didn’t.

The Santa Diaries actors, left to right, Thomas Drenth as Timmy; Samuel Temple as Marley the Dog; and Michael Lambert as Will Hawes. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

The Santa Diaries actors, left to right, Thomas Drenth as Timmy; Samuel Temple as Marley the Dog; and Michael Lambert as Will Hawes. Photo by Edward Brown and courtesy of The Merlin Players.

Saturday evening found me seated on the far right side of the Bahl Family Auditorium, near the back of the Paradise Center for the Arts restored theatre in historic downtown Faribault, wiping away tears during The Merlin Players performance of The Santa Diaries.

The play penned by Mala Burt and Laura Ambler and debuting in Minnesota, in Faribault, resounds with the age-old theme of discovering what is truly most important in life.

For main character Will Hawes, played by seasoned actor Michael Lambert, that is deciphering whether he truly values his success as a Hollywood actor over love and family. A return to his small hometown at Christmas causes Hawes to reexamine his choices in life.

During an especially creative scene in which Hawes is dreaming, he is advised to “open your heart and listen.”

This holiday chorus line will have you laughing out loud. Photo by Edward Brown, courtesy of The Merlin Players.

This holiday chorus line will put you in the Christmas mood and have you laughing out loud. Photo by Edward Brown, courtesy of The Merlin Players.

That could be the mantra for a production that mixes serious topics with humor. From the Hotdish Ladies (“Casseroles” in the original script, but this is Minnesota) bearing Sweet Potato Hotdish to a chorus line to the moment that made me cry—hearing the inner thoughts of Martha (played by Stephanie Weiss) wanting nothing more than her family home for Christmas—The Santa Diaries touches the heart.

You will laugh. You may cry. And, with absolute certainty, you will consider your own family and your life priorities as The Santa Diaries unfolds.

The older I grow, the less I care about the worldly trappings of Christmas. Like Martha, I just want my family home for Christmas. That won’t happen. Not precisely on Christmas Day. But we will have 1 ½ days together prior. And I am grateful for that. (The college son arrives home from Boston in exactly eight days.)

While The Santa Diaries presents a rather predictable happy ending—hey, you can’t have a holiday show that ends badly—real life isn’t that way. I know that. You know that. Life is messy. Work and distance and disagreements and busyness keep families apart.

But there is hope. People change. Situations change. We grow older and wiser. And, like main character Will Hawes, we eventually figure it out, that family is more important than money and success and work and schedules and, well, whatever else fills the time we could be with those we love.

The Paradise Center for the Arts is the cultural hub for theater and art in a historic theatre along Faribault's Central Avenue.

The Paradise Center for the Arts is the cultural hub for theater and art in a historic theatre along Faribault’s Central Avenue. Each December a holiday show is featured. This photo is from a past performance.

FYI: Additional performances of The Santa Diaries are set for 7:30 p.m. December 11, 12 and 13 and for 2 p.m. December 14. Julianna Skluzacek is the artistic director for the play featuring 28 passionate performers ranging from elementary age to decades older.  Call (507) 332-7372 for tickets from noon – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday or noon – 8 p.m. Thursdays. Tickets may also be purchased an hour before show times. I wouldn’t wait, though. Tickets are selling quickly.

The playwrights are flying into Minnesota from the East Coast on Friday and will be here for all three weekend performances.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Santa Diaries photos copyright of Edward Brown/The Merlin Players and published here with permission.