Theater Review - Sanders Family cast comes home for Christmas

Atlanta Lyric Theatre reunites for an Atlanta holiday tradition

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more welcome holiday homecoming than Atlanta Lyric Theatre's staging of Sanders Family Christmas (through Dec. 22). The company's production picks up a torch carried by Marietta's Theatre in the Square until its untimely closure in 2012.

For nearly two decades, the small, beloved Marietta playhouse made a popular tradition of producing the Sanders Family plays by Connie Ray and Alan Bailey. In 1992, Theatre in the Square staged the original show, Smoke on the Mountain, and found an irresistible blend of humor and music in the light-hearted depiction of a family of Gospel singers performing at a small North Carolina Baptist church one night in 1938. The sequel, Sanders Family Christmas became a frequent holiday production beginning in 1999, and Theatre in the Square staged the final show in the trilogy, Mount Pleasant Homecoming, in 2007.

Some actors have rotated in and out over the years, especially those playing teenage twins Dennis and Denise, but others made themselves at home in the roles. Karen Howell has played Sanders matriarch Vera since 1992, and J.P. Peterson has appeared in more than 1,000 performances as the father, Burl. The Sanders plays unfold like accident-plagued church performances, so being part of the audience feels not unlike belonging to the Mount Pleasant congregation. For the Lyric's Sanders Family Christmas, held at Marietta's First United Methodist Church only a couple of blocks from Theatre in the Square, both the cast and the spectators seem energized by the revival. (Coincidentally, Decatur's OnStage Atlanta presents its own Sanders Family Christmas through Dec. 22 as well.)

The play unfolds as a 1941 Christmas Eve service and Sanders Family performance, although Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (Alan Kilpatrick) and older Sanders sister June (Jennifer Akin) stall for time, since the rest of the family is running late. Typical jokes involve prayers for parishioners suffering from such elaborate ailments as "facial neuralgia." Once the whole family takes the stage (including Scott E. DePoy, Laura Floyd, and Jeremy Wood), they sing spirited renditions of old-timey Gospel songs and Christmas standards, including a medley of bell-themed carols and military-based hymns like "Onward, Christian Soldiers."

Each member of the family has a "witnessing" moment, a monologue that's either sincerely spiritual or overtly comedic — sometimes both. Howell's performance suggests "Downton Abbey's" imperious Maggie Smith as a country church lady, eager to one-up the reverend with scripture quotes. Kilpatrick's Mervin, with black slicked-back hair, looks a little like a televangelist, but still captures the role's overeager enthusiasm, especially in his performance of "I've Been Changed." As a non-singer who performs sign language, Akin's June has a penchant for whipping out unexpected instruments like spoons or cowbells, and generally makes a deadpan, put-upon comedic foil.

As a let's-do-it-again kind of sequel, Sanders lacks Smoke on the Mountain's sense of discovery of the characters, but it still makes good on a charming format. Whenever the play seems too sentimental or pious, it switches direction with a joke. Dennis' tearful goodbye to his family before his military service lays it on pretty thick before segueing to gags that bring down the curtain on the first act. Co-directors Howell and Kilpatrick don't shy away from broad physical comedy, and even allow both Denise and Mervin to punctuate racy implications with thrusting-hip gestures, which seem out of place for the setting.

Putting aside the show's history in the community, Sanders Family Christmas makes an easygoing alternative to holiday chestnuts like A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker. And at a time when self-appointed representatives of Christianity in the media come across as angry and defensive, Sanders Family's humor and happiness feel like a cease-fire in the War on Christmas.

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