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The holiday season of their discontent

Original comedy True Life Christmas Disasters debuts at Arena Dinner Theater

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Raymond Chandler, the Godfather of American detective fiction and creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, claimed to have a cure for anytime he was afflicted with writer’s block — when in doubt, have a guy holding a gun enter the room.

It was a piece of advice Chris Colcord modified and used as his own while writing his original “Christmas play” for the Arena Dinner Theater. “When it doubt, throw in another pissed off character,” he laughs. “That was kind of my ruling mantra.”

And most of the characters in True Life Christmas Disasters , which begins its run at Arena Dinner on November 25, can always find something that pisses them off. In fact, the four siblings of the Crossland family — Jonathan (Colcord); Thomas (Greg Stieber); Philip (Kevin Knuth) and Samantha (Courtney Hartman) — seem to exist in a constant state of exasperation or downright anger at one another. “They’re a contentious Catholic family, three brothers in their 40s, and a younger sister, and they’ve never really gotten along,” Colcord says. “They’re coming back to their childhood home for Christmas to see their mother (played by Donna Frey), but this is the first time they’ve gotten together in years.”

Samantha Crossland has also brought her boyfriend James (Jake Wilhelm) along to meet the family for the first time. “The audience needed somebody they could relate to when they initially encounter this ridiculously combative family, and that’s Jake’s character,” Colcord says.

Each member of the Crossland family seems to be disagreeable in their own unique way. Youngest brother Thomas (Stieber) shows up unemployed, with a ton of luggage he intends to store at his mother’s house. And middle brother Phillip (Knuth) is described as a… well, we’ll use the word “jerk.” “This guy is very opinionated, very caustic,” Knuth says of his character. “He just doesn’t have patience for anyone in his life but himself. He’s one of those guys — and we’ve all known these guys — who have opinions about everything, and they’re the only opinions that matter.”

Knuth adds that the Crosslands are probably the most dysfunctional family he’s ever met — they just seem to enjoy arguing with one another. That said True Life Christmas Disasters is a comedy. “It’s actually very funny, and I think people will leave feeling good about it,” Knuth says. “There’s a reason this family fights with each other, and that comes out later in the play.”

“Make it funny” was one of the guidelines David Frey, the president of Arena Dinner Theater, gave to Colcord when the idea of doing an original play came up. Frey says they had looked at about 10 different scripts for this season’s Christmas show — from traditional stories to a piece by Christopher Durang — but couldn’t find anything that stood out.

Eventually, they half-heartedly settled on a version of It’s A Wonderful Life as a sort of 1940s radio script, and Frey asked Colcord if he wanted to direct. Colcord accepted, but wasn’t all that enthusiastic. “It’s become a trend for many of the smaller theaters to do their own pieces at Christmas time,” Frey says, so when Colcord wasn’t all that keen on It’s A Wonderful Life… “I said ‘how about you write us a Christmas show?’ It’s something we’ve always talked about doing, and something we’ve always wanted to do.”

Frey gave Colcord a few guidelines — he wanted it to be traditional; he wanted it to be light, funny and “audience-accessible”; and he wanted minimal profanity. “Our audience tends to like it clean, so we try to respect that,” Frey says about that last item. “But as far as parameters go, that was pretty much it.”

Colcord took to the guidelines willingly. Those of you who are familiar with Colcord’s work — including his regular column in these pages — probably won’t be surprised to hear that recycling another take on “the meaning of Christmas” didn’t appeal to him. But the prospect of a family all getting together for Christmas has enormous dramatic and comic potential, and that was something Colcord was definitely interested in. “I think that happens a lot at Christmas,” Colcord says. “Even in the best families there’s going to be some resentments and some weird things that happen, especially as you get older.”

He continues: “There’s a reason why Christmas and Thanksgiving are huge box-office days, because when you go to the family home there’s a weight there, there are power plays that go in any family. So I think people go to the movie theater because it evens out the playing field. It’s neutral ground.”

Colcord describes the overall tone of True Life Christmas Disasters as humorous, even farcical. But Greg Stieber, who plays Thomas Crossland, says there’s some substantial dramatic heft to the story — these four siblings, all in their 30s and 40s, have accumulated a lot of baggage over the years. “It’s a family reunion story, but it’s a family reunion later in life,” Stieber explains. “All the siblings have some sort of… well, I don’t want to say ‘demon,’ because that’s way too lofty, but they have their own challenges that you just cannot hide when you’re around your family. When you’re out in the big, bad world, you can show people a different face, but that’s hard to do when you’re around the people that know you the best, and I think Chris has conveyed that very well.”

Frey is enthusiastic about True Life Christmas Disasters, and says he’s looking forward to the play’s run. It’s definitely an experiment for Arena, since it’s not an established piece, but says the play strikes that balance of accessibility, humor, and dramatic heft he was hoping for. “In this day and age, we’re not looking to beat anyone over the head with a life lesson necessarily, because we’ve just found that’s really not what people are looking for. So we tried to keep it pretty up beat, and I think (Colcord) did a great job making that happen.”

Arena Dinner Theater presents True Life Christmas Disasters
719 Rockhill
Fridays November 25, December 2, 9, and 16
Saturdays November 26, December 3, 10, and 17
Sunday matinee on December 11
For tickets call (260) 424-5622 or visit arenadinnertheater.org

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.