“Beasley's Christmas Party” is an adaptation by C.W. Munger of a novella by the very popular early 20th Century author Booth Tarkington. Published in 1909, it tells the story of a seclusive but very popular politician, David Beasley, who lives in a large, largely empty house in a mid-western town, and who becomes an object of great curiosity to a local journalist, Booth, when that writer becomes his neighbor. He learns that Beasley was rejected by the beautiful girl-next-door, Miss Apperthwaite, because he lacked “imagination”. That is particularly ironic because the first thing Booth notices about Beasley is that he seems to be carrying on conversations with imaginary friends, and often calls to an imaginary dog named Simpledoria. Rival politicians seek to use his idiosyncrasies (or questionable sanity) to defeat him in an upcoming gubernatorial race, but when they spy on his big Christmas party for his ghostly guests, hoping to prove his lunacy, his real secret involving a sickly orphan child who is now his ward proves not only his sanity, but his imagination, kindness and good heart.
The solid and accomplished cast in this production tells the story with skill and a graceful, period charm. Director Scott Nolte keeps the action moving well, not a small accomplishment for a quite talky, quite elaborately literary script. Each of the members of the four-person cast (except for Booth) play a number of characters and that also serves to underscore the inventiveness of the story. A single directorial decision, having the sickly child portrayed by a blanketed object in a wagon, voiced by an off-stage performer, was a devastating mistake and ultimately defeated the entire production. All of the other characters in the play could be invisible, imaginary or theatrically invented, but that child had to be physically present in order for any of the sentiment to have substance.
Frank Lawler was quite good as the small-town journalist, Booth, who also acts as our narrator and (presumably) Tarkington's voice. That's no small achievement because almost all of his text is taken directly from the original writing, and that writing is in the formal, erudite, often stilted and always verbose manner of turn-of-the-century prose. I especially liked Lawler's blend of journalistic curiosity with a basic belief in the goodness of Beasley until (and unless) proven otherwise. He also had a nice relationship with Miss Apperthwaite, played with dignity and elegance by Lisa Peretti. That she rejects Beasley for his lack of imagination is a mistake resulting from misunderstanding his verbal restraint. In her portrayal of an older woman who knows Beasley well, she informs Booth that while the odd man may be one of the least verbal people in town, it is a virtue in the face of the masses who speak too much and say too little.
Don Brady gives a vigorous portrayal of Beasley, making him a man of character and substance, a quirky but altogether admirable man whose actions truly speak louder (and much more frequently) than his words. He is fully immersed in several supporting characters, as well. Finally, Aaron Lamb has a great time rapidly moving in and out of a crowd of personalities populating this most traditional town of Wainwright, Indiana.
“Beasley's Christmas Party” is a very slight and curious piece of antique Americana. While there's certainly nothing wrong with a play, especially a Christmas play, being old-fashioned, this one really just seemed old. I think primarily because we were denied the actual presence of the child, the main reason for the play, we were denied the embodiment and the humanity of its central action. What we were left with was some amusing play-acting and a heap of verbiage, some familiar types and the shadow of a story. Tiny Tim can't be played by a puppet.
PICTURED ABOVE: Don Brady, Lisa Peretti and Frank Lawler in Beasley’s Christmas Party.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug.