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Script brings TOY's 'Little House' not quite home for the holidays

At a time of year when playhouses roll out their feel-good fare, Theatre of Youth is presenting one of the warmest and fuzziest offerings of the holiday season. Whether this big-hearted production has a pulse, however, is open to debate.

For the first half-hour, "A Little House Christmas" slogs along. There's barely a glimmer of tension until a few minutes before intermission. Even the prairie's resident bad seed, Nellie Olesen, is given scant opportunity to do more than pout and preen.

In stitching together several episodes from the autobiographical books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, playwright James DeVita fails to resurrect Wilder's masterful storytelling. His script offers a timeless message about the meaning of Christmas, but he's not exactly using Fed Ex to deliver it. Instead of propelling the narrative forward, he devotes his energy to developing characters -- characters that many in the audience already know.

Besides the earnest Ingalls clan, they include Mrs. Olesen, played with pitch-perfect snobbery by Linda Stein, the soft-hearted bachelor Mr. Edwards (Jeffrey Coyle) and Uncle George (Kevin Keleher), a reticent war hero suffering from what appears to be post-traumatic stress disorder.

When everyone gathers at the Ingalls' new homestead a week before Christmas, a freak rainstorm hits. As her guests make a hasty exit, Laura is left to wonder whether Santa Claus will be able to cross the flooded creek to deliver presents. (Apparently, the pioneers didn't fall for the reindeer-driven sleigh bit. Instead, the big elf traveled by mule.)

Their parents, meanwhile -- the settlers' version of last-minute shoppers -- are doing some fretting of their own. How will they buy gifts if they can't get to town? As the situation turns dire, even Pa (Todd Benzin) loses his cool.

Happily, their problems are solved with the appearance of big man in a red suit. And, no, it's not who you think it is. Without revealing his identity, suffice it to say that the ensuing scene injects "Little House Christmas" with such glee that you can almost excuse its earlier failings.

Stepping into the shoes of familiar characters is no small feat, and Theatre of Youth's ensemble does so without mimicking the television actors who brought "Little House on the Prairie" into our family rooms for nearly a decade. Susan Drozd blends sweetness with strength in her portrayal of the family matriarch. Underneath a snooty exterior, Claire Cannon's Nellie gives hints of humanity. Jeffrey Coyle's Mr. Edwards is as funny as he is vulnerable. And Kaila Rose Proulx does a perky turn as Half Pint.

Kenneth Shaw's beautifully rustic set captures the coziness of the Ingalls' digs, complete with a sleeping loft and a fat chimney billowing smoke. It's a pity that the cast and crew couldn't have lent their considerable talents to a worthier script.

***

Theater Review

"A Little House Christmas"

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Drama presented by Theatre of Youth through next Sunday in Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St. For information, call 884-4400 or visit www.theatreofyouth.org.

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