Theatre - The spirit of St. Nicholas

By Michelle Nepton - December 13, 2007

The final two performances of "Miracles at Christmas," a production of the Island Theatre Workshop (ITW), are tonight and tomorrow night. Tonight's show is at the Old Whaling Church and tomorrow night's finale is at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. The latter's intimate setting and remarkable acoustics give the medieval plays and carols a fresh feel.

Director E. St. John Villard opened the production with a quick welcome note. She also included information in the program for those who wish to learn more about the medieval background of the plays. St. Nicholas keeps the spirit of Christmas alive in these plays. Ms. Villard stated, "He continuously says, 'I don't do this, Christ does,'" and in that is the true medieval meaning of Christmas.

Abigail Southard and Joyce Maxner
A mother and daughter (Abigail Southard, left, and Joyce Maxner) in one of the St. Nicholas plays. Photos by Ralph Stewart. Click photo for larger version.

The belief and faith in Christ and the idea that humans are flawed are the central lessons of the plays. When asked about the idea for the plays, she said, "It's pretentious. I used to teach college drama, so when Island Theatre Workshop was looking for something original, I thought of this." The production premiered on Friday and was a benefit for the Edgartown Public Library. The night was a great success, and Ms. Villard realized immediately that benefits draw bigger audiences. "From now on, I'm only doing benefits," she says.

The three short plays have Saint Nicholas as the central character who saves sinners and their victims alike while always crediting a higher power for his actions.

"'Twas not my hand who gave this fortune to ye, 'twas God," he said. He parallels the central character of present day Christmas, Santa Claus, but retains the religious meaning of Christmas alive. At one point, he watches a naughty child steal jewels, but later goes back to the child to make her do the right thing by returning what she stole. This corresponds with the idea that Santa is always watching, and knows when you've been naughty and when you've been nice.

Jan Hyer
Jan Hyer sings "What Child is This" in "Miracles at Christmas." Ms. Hyer also plays cello in the show that combines Christmas stories and music. Click photo for larger version.

The music was an integral aspect of the show. A keyboard, two types of recorders, and a cello were used to accompany the gorgeous voices of the actors. They themselves added bells and a tambourine to some songs as they sang. The instrument players at times left their posts to join in on the acting. It was a fluid production that involved all players in acting, singing, and music making. The female vocalists, Joyce Maxner and Abigail Southard, created beautiful harmony without instruments in the opening song, "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Neither disappointed throughout the show. Their strong, gorgeous voices sang some traditional Christmas carols in Latin. Their male counterparts, Brad Austin and Kevin Ryan, accompanied them in "Break Forth" with an amazing four-piece harmony.

The costumes represented the medieval period in colors, fabric, and style. Saint Nicholas wore a gold robe covered in sparkling snowflakes. Due to the beautiful atmosphere of the church, and the fine costumes of the actors, no sets were needed for the production.

Stephanie Burke, music director and keyboardist, is happy with the show. The group had been practicing for about five weeks. Ms. Burke is also the president of the executive board of ITW. She said the company has open auditions because they "are always looking for new people." She listed an impressive number of plays and musicals ITW performs throughout the year. "We're a real community group," she said.

ITW's open auditions are attracting young, fresh talent on the Vineyard. Young dancers Amy Fligor and Sheila McHugh performed graceful ballet pieces for two of the medieval carols. Sheila said that she was "a little" nervous about the show, but "it was fun to be in." She has been taking ballet lessons for four years and has been in plays at the Charter School, but this was her first production with ITW.

In her opening note, Ms. Villard said, "We learned the first night that people were reluctant to laugh at church. Please feel free to laugh if it is funny. The Medieval people chose to laugh at themselves." The audience took note, and the play often elicited the response of laughter. An invitation to the audience to participate in the finale brought everyone together in song. Phil Demers, a Sunday afternoon spectator with his wife Fran, said, "There is talent here." He described the production in just one word, "Spectacular."

"Miracles At Christmas," continues Thursday, Dec. 13, 7:30 pm, Old Whaling Church, Main St., Edgartown; and the final show, Friday, Dec. 14, 7:30 pm, St. Andrew's Church, N. Summer Street, Edgartown. $15 suggested donation. For more information, call 508-627-2529.

Michelle Nepton is a contributing writer to The Times.