The Christmas Foundling mines Bret Harte for holiday inspiration | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The Christmas Foundling mines Bret Harte for holiday inspiration

The unconventional family structures of 19th-century mining camps widen the lens for LGBTQ history.


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Neither Tom Selleck nor Steve Guttenberg nor Ted Danson have anything on this crew of 19th-century Sierra gold miners, who are unexpectedly thrust into fatherhood after a vagabond dies in their cabin shortly after giving birth. Isolated from society and unable to track down the boy's next of kin, romantic partners Old Jake (Michael D. Graham) and Hoke (Fiore Barbini) decide to raise the boy (Henry Lombardo) as their own along with the help of their international, all-male team of laborers.

For The Christmas Foundling, playwright Norman Allen sought inspiration from the literary works of Bret Harte, whose essays and short stories provided a living document of California during the Gold Rush and the unconventional family structures that formed within the camps. It's fertile territory for historical fiction, and another entry into the repertoire of queer theater that decidedly sets its sights outside the expected bastions of gay life for stories about LGBTQ people throughout American history. Less subtle, though, is the shoehorned-in nativity story (Wise Men et al arriving with gifts) and the conflict introduced when a blood relative (BethAnn Smukowski) tracks down the child after ten years.

Codirectors Danne W. Taylor and David Zak's production is a sometimes-charming but mostly shallow telling, full of wistful monologues about homelands, ham-fisted cultural clashes between miners, and improv night-style broad accents. But a cappella renditions of carols provide some Christmas spirit, and young Lombardo meets the high demands this Pride Films and Plays production places on his small shoulders.  v

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