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The Christmas Schooner and Mrs. Coney

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THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER, Bailiwick Repertory, and Mrs. Coney, Bailiwick Repertory. A winter voyage over icy waters--from Manistique, Michigan, to Chicago--would have been a daring venture in the 19th century whatever its motive. But history records that in 1883 a schooner brought a shipload of Christmas trees to the captain's homesick cousin and her city neighbors, initiating a tradition that would endure decades after its founder's heroic death in the line of duty.

Playwright John Reeger and composer-lyricist Julie Shannon have fashioned from these chronicles a musical saga of compassion and personal sacrifice that suggests American literary myth even as it pulls out all the appropriate emotional stops. The cast assembled by directors Adam Theisen and David Zak for the 1999 production--the play premiered in 1995 and has run every year since--is possibly the best yet. Phil Gigante plays the courageous Captain Stossel with the dignity befitting a commander and a smile like sunrise on the water. Able support is provided by Amy Arbizzani as the steely Mrs. Stossel; Tom Higgins, returning in the role of wise Grandfather Stossel; and Christopher Grobe in an auspicious debut as the teenage Karl Stossel.

Mrs. Coney--an intimate fable about a Depression-era family displaced by the great Oklahoma drought--inhabits a smaller universe. And playwright Belinda Bremner's long passages of straightforward prose occasionally render the narrative rather static. But the play's lesson in altruism--a boy comes of age by learning empathy for others, in particular an old woman who may be a witch--is no less worthwhile for being framed by literary reminiscences.

In the lead role of the adolescent Jamie Austin, Kevin Chevalia shows a presence and maturity belying his years; Aaron Christensen plays the adult Jamie and Gail Curry the enigmatic title character. A full-cast medley of mountain-region holiday carols opens the show, but it might be better to save them for the end--especially the hand-clapping, foot-stomping sing-along "Christmas Time's a Comin'." As it stands, these songs only interfere with the eager audience's natural wish to meet the play's characters and hear their stories. --Mary Shen Barnidge

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