Playwright Sarah Dreher transports us to a conjoint Christmas and 40th-wedding-anniversary celebration at the Sibley home, to which daughter Bronwen brings a special surprise--her female lover, Kelley. "You always did like to stack the deck against yourself," family friend Adele tells Bronwen.
The stage springs to life from the moment Bronwen (Cheryl Booth) and Kelley (Donna Holmes Baudoin) make their entry. Baudoin is particularly fine: Each time she comes onstage, the lights seem to crank up a notch or two. Lisa Schupbach also is remarkable as the in-law Lorraine, as sweet-natured and loving as she is vulnerable. Her haunted eyes and hesitant demeanor remain with you long after the play's end.
Whatever quibbles I have belong not to the production, but to the play itself. Director Marian Levine has done a fine job of educing Ruby Christmas, of getting inside the play and looking out. The broad gestures and stylized reactions she brings to characters, which may seem overblown, are, in fact, direct equivalents, transliterations, of the play's structure.
Ruby Christmas is, after all, of that genre "the well-made play." Such plays are cut pretty much to pattern, conflicts sketched out early and predictably escalated, characters revealing a bit more of themselves with each confrontation, crests and troughs falling just where they should.
To such dramatic necessity belongs heavy, repetitive foreshadowing ("You better keep your eye on Bronwen. God knows what she might bring home someday"). This also accounts for the overplayed, stiff and not-altogether-convincing flare-ups between Bronwen and her mother, Harriet. And in a number of instances, for similar reasons, characters fall back from being themselves to become mouthpieces for the play's theme.
To that same well-madeness, however, belong some of the play's strongest tropes. Forsaking a master's degree in marine biology for a career as a lobster trapper, Bronwen has voluntarily gone back to the working life that her mother, a child of Pennsylvania's coal country, gave up everything to escape.
"I wanted everything to be so wonderful for you," she tells Bronwen, "and you had to be so different."
"Bronwen sings in the shower now; she sings everywhere," Kelley remarks to Harriet. "Have you ever heard her sing, Mrs. Sibley?"
By the beginning of the fourth scene, all the gifts from beneath the tree have been opened, though we see only the ribbons and paper--the empty casings--being cleared away.
It's with Bronwen's beaten retreat that the final bow is snipped open.
And here we learn what Harriet Sibley's ultimate gift will be this Christmas and anniversary. She had gotten everything she wanted, everything she set out to get. "And all it's cost you," Adele tells her, "is Bronwen."
However well-intended, however beautifully wrapped these may be, we cannot pass on, or accept, others' accommodations. We must always come to, or refuse, our own.
Finally, the gift Bronwen and Harriet give one another is, if not freedom, then at least a liberating release.
Which is also a pretty good description of what the arts do for us all.
The world's a much wider, wiser place than our own small lives would ever let us know. Plays and productions like Ruby Christmas help us pry open windows, clear away smoke--help make our world large again. For two hours that Saturday night on Planet Earth's small stage, it was a good size indeed.
Ruby Christmas continues through Saturday, Decenber 23, at Planet Earth Mulit-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street.