The heart in Fred Stroppel’s “The Christmas Spirit” is as surprising as the unexpected guest that kicks off the show’s premise.
Traditional holiday fare usually falls into one of two categories: saccharine-sweet, familiar tales or extremely saccharine-sweet, familiar tales. With the proliferation of such sugary goodness every holiday season, there occasionally comes a darker show, with a bit of irreverence thrown in, showing a different side to the chaos of life in the month of December. That holiday irreverence is the same thing that makes shows like David Sedaris’s beloved “The Santa Land Diaries” such a perennial annual favorite. “The Christmas Spirit” starts off with that same tongue planted firmly in its cheek, but the surprise happens when a lot of heart and sensitivity pokes it’s head out among the red and green tinsel-covered plotline.
“The Christmas Spirit” opens as Julia (Emma Messenger) is visited by a stranger (Jeff T. Jesmer) claiming to be Death, ready to transport her to the afterlife. With a little bit of persuasiveness, Julia convinces Death to give her one more day to enjoy her last Christmas, and to show Death just how wonderful a truly traditional holiday can be. The problem is, her family is a little less than traditional, so the farcical story begins to unravel as the bright holiday fantasy collides with the dark truth about Julia’s last night on Earth.
The first act clips along at a pretty fast pace, with lots of humor and plenty of whimsical holiday fun. It is the second act that confronts the truth about losing a parent during the holidays, and it holds nothing back. Suddenly, this hilarious story is filled with very real emotion, firmly grounding this once fantastical tale
Director Clint Heyn has assembled a strong cast to bring this production to life. Emma Messenger is warm and enthusiastic as Julia, giving her an approachable and truly likable quality. By contrast, Sarah MacMillan gives one of her stronger performances to date as the bitter and angry Aunt Rosemary. Jean Schuman is another standout, as Julia’s adult daughter. Though Schuman took a few minutes to really sink into her character, she eventually found her footing and provided a very heartfelt and emotional journey.
Jeff T. Jesmer also gives an excellent performance as The Visitor. He peppers his performance with equal parts enthusiasm and innocence, giving the character of Death a naïve, almost childlike quality. Once it comes down to business, however, Jesmer maneuvers smartly, and keeps his own grounding as the play takes its drastic turn.
Not all of the performances are quite as strong as the others, but everyone in the cast works well together, and the result is a highly satisfying, emotional ride. The set, (also credited to Jeff. T. Jesmer and Kristjan Jesmer) it should be noted, is quite strong too. With a lot of nice playing area that is well utilized. Lighting (Alexis Bond) is one of the stronger designs for this space as well, though a small light coming from the busy kitchen would have kept that playing area more believable.
There are a lot of Christmas shows to see over the next few weeks, and you should certainly find time to catch all your favorites. But if you are looking for something a little different, then this is one show that should make your list. The truth is, “A Christmas Spirit” is not just a great holiday play, but it’s just a really good play – for any time of year.
Firehouse Theater presents
"The Christmas Spirit"
Julia Dowling has an unexpected visitor - who intends to escort her off to the afterlife.
Playing through Dec. 21
Fri./Sat. @ 7:30 p.m.;
Sun., Dec. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
$20 Adult; $18 for Students/seniors
Reservations at 303-562-3232
John Hand Theater/Colorado Free University
7653 East First Place, Denver, CO