Fruitcakes in Love | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Fruitcakes in Love


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Northlight Theatre

Charles Dickens, speaking through the character of Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew Fred, called the Christmas season "the only time I know . . .when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave." Maybe it's because the holiday reminds us how much closer we've come toward the grave ourselves. Long before the winter solstice was appropriated by the Christian church it was a time for reflection on death and renewal. Certainly the Christmas holiday, in its current identity, is the time of year most determinedly set aside for family gatherings; and as adults we're inclined to think back on such gatherings in our childhood--and to consider the preciousness of life as we think of those close to us who have left it.

Truman Capote's autobiographical stories "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory" offer such reflection. Strange that the stories haven't acquired the classic status bestowed on Dickens's A Christmas Carol or even Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Perhaps the tastemakers think people would be uncomfortable with stories about the love between a sissy boy and his spinster aunt.

Certainly little Truman's relatives thought there was something strange, even unhealthy, about his relationship with his elderly oddball cousin Sook. Truman was dumped in Monroeville, Alabama, to live with Sook, her two unmarried sisters, and their reclusive bachelor brother for a few years beginning in 1930; he soon forged a very close bond with Sook, a remarkable, almost saintly maiden in her 60s whose innocence and childlike nature led many people to think, wrongly, that she was mentally deficient. Some 20 years later he wrote about Sook and some key lessons he learned from her; in the 1960s, Frank Perry adapted the stories for film (Geraldine Page starred as Sook), but despite wide acclaim this version has generally faded from view. Now Northlight Theatre's Russell Vandenbroucke is hoping that his story-theater adaptations will win an audience. They deserve to. Northlight's Holiday Memories is touching, witty, and likely to put viewers in a mood to think back on their own bittersweet, instructive holiday memories.

Despite the outsider's sensibility Capote brought to everything he wrote, the experiences he evokes in these accounts of a Depression-era southern childhood are far from unique: gearing up for an onslaught of relatives, preparing and anticipating presents--and worrying about the school bully. The title character of "The Thanksgiving Visitor" is Odd Henderson, a 12-year-old second-grader who makes life miserable for little Buddy (as Truman was called). Asked why he's taken it upon himself to beat up on Buddy as often as possible, Odd casually replies: "You're a sissy. I'm just straightening you out." (What he was doing, in fact, was instilling in Buddy a thing for tough guys; but that didn't occur to Truman at age seven.)

Though Buddy aims to steer clear of his tormentor, Sook thinks the answer is to kill Odd with kindness. She invites the boy to Thanksgiving dinner--a situation familiar to anyone who ever dreaded a holiday gathering because of a particular relative or guest scheduled to be there. When Buddy notices Odd stealing jewelry from Sook's bedroom, he thinks he's got the perfect opportunity to avenge himself; instead he learns a painful lesson about the unpardonable sin of deliberate cruelty--and comes to recognize how deep and complex is Sook's love for him.

"A Christmas Memory" is a less focused narrative; it's Capote's reminiscence of the last Christmas he ever spent with Sook. Perhaps I've spoiled something by saying this; Capote leaves that revelation till the end of the story, which is a simple, beautifully observant description of the planning and work the two put into the annual batch of fruitcakes they make as gifts for people ranging from President and Mrs. Roosevelt to a friendly traveling knife grinder. The genius is in the details: Capote describes an old baby buggy used to gather pecans in the woods, the beaded purse in which Sook hordes money to buy ingredients for the cakes, the various ways Sook and Buddy raised that money (their relatives paid them a penny for every 25 flies they killed), and the giddy reaction these two innocents have when, after using up almost all of a bottle of whiskey in the recipe, they treat themselves to a shot apiece of straight booze. This scene is particularly sweet, though less so when one considers the bloated alcoholic Capote became in late middle age. That's hindsight, of course; but hindsight is the key to this lovely story about a dead friend and a vanished childhood.

Susan V. Booth's staging of Vandenbroucke's generally faithful script is simple and unshowy: the only effects she goes for are those that could have been concocted by kids putting on a show in their garage. There's a large element of childlike make- believe in set and lighting designer Michael S. Philippi's simple arrangement of drapes and shadows, which turns the stage into various rooms and forests; Booth depicts Buddy's pint-size view of adult mysteries with shadows cast on the drapes from offstage. The seamless acting ensemble--Mary Ann Thebus as dotty, insightful Sook, Greg Vinkler as a slightly prissy older Capote, Edward Jemison as little Buddy, and Jerry Saslow and Kate Buddeke in various other roles--are superbly dressed by costume designer Renee Liepins (she has Sook right down to her calico dress and tennis shoes). Malcolm Ruhl's piano accompaniment eloquently underscores the musicality of Capote's writing (Buddy's fantasy of suicide--discarded when he realizes he wouldn't be around to see how his relatives mourn him--is delivered by Jemison almost as a song over Ruhl's funereal chords). Like Sook's fruitcakes, Holiday Memories is sweet, tangy, solid, and made with plenty of love.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Avery.

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