By Josette Keelor
Wayside Theatre's original musical, "Glory Bea! A Shenandoah Christmas Story," ushers in the holiday season with a tale of faith, community and the importance of family.
Written by Larry Dahlke and Rich Follett, the play honors the Shenandoah Valley's past through an impressive score by Follett and arrangements by Steve Przybylski, including a reprise of Follett's locally known "Shenandoah Christmas."
As is tradition for Wayside's Christmas productions, the play is double cast, so no two performances are likely to be the same, but on opening night the play's enduring message proclaimed that life goes on in spite of hardship and pain, and that joy can be found through love, forgiveness and hope.
On the eve of her husband John's spring departure to find work building the brand new Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Annie Thorne learns that the couple will expect a baby for Christmas. John promises Annie and their daughter Glory that he'll make it home in time for the holiday eight months away, but the ensuing separation tests their resolve.
With her father away, Glory at first struggles with having to take on more work at home, but soon accepts a sense of responsibility older and wiser than her young age.
Efficiently designed by Wes Calkin, the set and lighting allow for an easy storytelling experience that includes a pastor who has lost his faith, a schoolhouse instructor struggling to maintain control and a classroom of rowdy children seeking their own moments in the spotlight. With three unlikely guardian angels narrating in Greek chorus fashion, the play takes on an allegorical feel reminiscent of "It's a Wonderful Life," with Clarence the Angel helping to prevent some tragic and possible outcomes from coming to pass.
On opening night, Thomasin Savaiano and Benjamin Reed were convincing as Annie and John, a typical Northern Shenandoah Valley couple simply trying to make due in the midst of the Great Depression. Forced into choosing between two undesirable options -- leaving his daughter and pregnant wife alone for many long months in favor of a paycheck that he might not otherwise find -- Reed conveys the desperation and resignation of a husband and father protecting his family in the only way he can.
Savaiano, too, manifests a sense of duty as Annie, who becomes the go-to person for everyone who needs anything accomplished throughout the tale.
As the emotionally tortured Reverend Hite, still mourning the passing of his wife and son, Jody Lee is solemn, irritable and for awhile oblivious of the concerns of other characters, particularly the put-upon Annie.
Considering the time period and tone of the story, the play requires a certain acceptance from viewers of the characters' inclinations to succumb to their ever stressful situations.
Still, though the women of the cast portray strong souls determined to make the best of tough situations, even if it kills them. The men of the story seem caught in perpetual varying states of personal depression that weigh down scenes that depend on them.
As the play's namesake character, Hannah Marteeny (who alternates performances with Audrey Nakagawa) is vibrant, effervescent and mature as the heart and soul of the musical. With an admirable singing ability and never ceasing smile, she is a joy to watch, like a bright star shining through a settled fog of uncertainty. Leslie Putnam plays the spitfire schoolteacher Sarah, the play's gravitational constant. As her students, Cherith Pilong, Natalie Youngblood, Brady Spaid, Tyler Plazio and John Carter perform enthusiastically.
Narrating the story as the three guardian angels, Lee as Gabe, Przybylski as Mike and Jason Labrador as Zeke, bring lighthearted moments through musical interludes and cause both ruckus and solution among a cast of characters, who at times need divine intervention.
The ending, while anticipated, is both satisfying and emotional. Performing on other nights will be Kimberly Braun as Annie, Bob Payne as John, Theresa McGuirk as Sarah, Darrell Johnston as Mike, Jessica Jernigan as Zeke and Audrey Nakagawa as Glory, and a cast of children: Amanda Willis, Jessica Shostek, Patrick Bauserman, Jackson Sirbaugh and Thomas Bauserman.
"Glory Bea! A Shenandoah Christmas Story" will continue at Wayside Theatre in Middletown through Dec. 24. For more information, call 869-1776 or visit waysidetheatre.org.
To contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor, call 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email firstname.lastname@example.org