The setting of Christopher Sergel's "The Homecoming," is a place most Vineyarders might find familiar. Spencer Mountain, Va., at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a small isolated place where everyone knows everyone else, where neighbor helps neighbor, rules are negotiated, and those who have share with those who have not.
Based on Earl Hamner Jr.'s book, which inspired "The Waltons" TV show, it is a regular Vineyard Playhouse holiday offering. Before the performance, the show's director, Playhouse producer and artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo, explained, "It's traditional, but it gives another generation of actors a chance to play these roles." She continued, "I always find something new - the chemistry among the actors... It's a moment-to-moment discovery."
Set in the Depression in 1933, on Christmas Eve, the play features a character-driven, rather than event-centered, plot, a cast of almost 30 (mostly children), and a poignant, family-style theme. It is a sentimental and predictable story, the success of which depends on the quality of the production and the skill of the actors.
Success. Stephen Zablotny's rustic and atmospheric set, Fred Hancock's affective lighting, and Jim Novack's integral sound effects - just the right degree of lonesome wind and mood-setting music - all serve to enhance the impact of this polished production.
As for the cast: From ten-year-old Oak Bluffs student Katherine Reid (a spunky Pattie Cake Spencer), to regional high school junior Katie Clarke (Becky Spencer); from audience favorites, the mesmerizing Jaime Harris (Reverend Hawthorne Dooly), the sparkling Chelsea McCarthy (Emma Staples), and Jill Macy (Etta Staples) - both captivating - to scene-stealers like Oak Bluffs second-grader Kiric Hallahan (Claudie Dooly) and Daniel Lee Osleeb (a mix of scoundrel and saint, Charlie Sneed), the performances are disciplined and convincing.
It is Christmas Eve and a snowstorm is raging. Clay Spencer (seasoned Playhouse veteran Christopher Kann), who was forced to find work 50 miles from home, is late returning to his wife, Olivia, (Molly Purves) and his eight children. Olivia stares out at the storm, frets and waits. The family has barely enough to eat, let alone money for Christmas presents. A wistful Ms. Purves lends a touching fragility and tenderness to the role. When she tells her child, "There's no such thing as miracles," one suspects she's saying it more out of self-preservation than belief.
But it is regional high school junior Daniel Cuff, making his acting debut as Clay-Boy Spencer, the eldest son, who raises the bar on a show that rests in great part on his delivery. His natural stage presence and assured delivery, even his restrained and consistent Blue Ridge twang, is impressive.
It is the tension between father and son that gives the play its texture. Clay-Boy admits that his father "is a hard man to measure up to," and that deepens the rift between the nine-to-five practical man and the artistic boy who wants to become a writer - "not man's work," according to his father. But Clay-Boy, who reads his observations from his journal throughout the stage action, notes: "People in my town need to have their stories told."
As he sets out in the blizzard to look for his father, Clay-boy's imagined conversations with him emphasize their differences. The search takes him from one town character to another, where from each encounter he gradually learns something unexpected about his father. More than beginning to understand the man his father is, he begins to recognize the depth of his father's affection and respect for him.
This year's holiday show - dedicated to the memory of Virginia Hackney, an active member of the Vineyard Playhouse team - relies on the strengths of the ensemble. It is the ability of each member of the cast to make the most of often fleeting moments to convey his and her personality that makes the rather bland book into a theatrically compelling experience - something Ms. Hackney, who appeared in the 2004 production of the play, excelled at.
That audience members will recognize their neighbors on stage, yet will most likely find them overtaken by their characters, is a tribute to all the performances. All the details are tended to: the stage action, children reacting and miming in the background, and the occasional seamless ad libs when a pause needed filling. Even the stagehands who come on stage to change the sets appear in period costumes.
"The Homecoming," is worthy family-style entertainment. There are moments of humor, compassion, and a demonstration of timeless priorities. And as the Staples sisters, famous for serving their spiked punch, declare: "The nice thing about life is that you never know when it's going to be a party."
"The Homecoming" Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Dec. 14 through Dec. 22. Friday and Saturday curtain time 7 pm. Sunday curtain time 3 pm. Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church St., Vineyard Haven. Tickets: $17.50 for adults; $15 for seniors; $12.50 for children 18 and under. For more information, call 508-696-6300 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org.