It's Christmas Eve and the congregation of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church - that's us, all the folks in the audience - have gathered for the traditional carol service. But this is 1941 - less than three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some of our boys have already gone to war. Others, like young Dennis Sanders, will be on the bus in the morning. We owe them a big send-off, a touch of home and faith that will strengthen us all in the days to come. Who better to lead us in song and prayer than the renowned Sanders Family?
When the play opens, Brother Oglethorpe is alone in the sacristy with young June Sanders. She's the plain, non-singing member of the family who does all the heavy lifting, including in this case Brother Oglethorpe's spirits. Since the passing of his beloved Mama last August, things just have not been right with the tender-hearted, slightly inept Mervin. But it's impossible to stay depressed around a woman as practical and matter-of-fact as June. She has her own way of bearing witness, Oglethorpe assures us with more than a little enthusiasm, but June fails to pick up on these semi-romantic clues.
The evening gets off to a strong start as the family enters with that energy characteristic of people coming in from the cold - a situation with which the congregation is all too familiar. Soon Mama and Brother Oglethorpe are lobbing bible verses at each other with almost military precision. "Love one another," Daddy chides gently, citing chapter and verse. These southern Baptists are experts at this kind of communication, and their praising of the Lord covers a wealth of irony.
Actors' Summit newcomer MaryAnn Elder plays Mama to feisty red-headed perfection, and the lovely Constance Thackaberry transforms herself into a plain June with wire-rimmed specs and self-effacing charm. The multi-talented Dana Hart plays Burl Sanders, the family patriarch, and Keith Stevens shines as the boyish and befuddled Oglethorpe.
Daniel H. Taylor is Uncle Stanley, the Sanders with a past, who has just returned from Hollywood and a stint with Gene Autry. Jamie Koeth and Kathleen Culler play twins Dennis and Denise, both blessed with beautiful voices, and accomplished musicians to boot - he on the guitar and she on the flute.
The piece sags a little in the second act, mostly from the all-too-realistic difficulties of staging Brother Oglethorpe's silly"Christmas in Many Lands." But the beautiful, old-fashioned carols and the strong, engaging characters - each with a personal story to tell - keep things moving along right smartly.
Sanders Family Christmas is the sequel to Connie Ray's popular bluegrass musical, Smoke on the Mountain, which introduces the Sanders family in a similar format. If we're all very, very good and Actors' Summit can hold on to this strong cast, we may get to see them both in rep next season.
Sanders Family Christmas Through December 21 Actors' Summit Theater 86 Owen Brown St., Hudson 330.342.0800