- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

Take the Christmas story, sprinkle liberally with elements from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” toss in some old-time guitar picking and you have “The Christmas Foundling,” local playwright Norman Allen’s dead-earnest tale, inspired by the stories of Bret Harte, about what constitutes a family.

In this case, it’s a group of crusty coal miners living in the Sierra foothills of California in the 1850s. The gold rush has settled down, and the multi-culti group — hailing from Scotland, Russia, New England, the South and New York — wield their pickaxes in a stag town called Piney Gulch.

It’s all spittin’, drinkin’ and bellyachin’ until one stormy Christmas Eve when a pregnant woman staggers into the cabin inhabited by Hoke (JJ Area) and Old Jake (Jim Zidar), gives birth to a boy and then promptly dies. All of a sudden it’s five miners and a baby as the men cope with feeding (luckily, there’s a goat handy) and caring for the babe.

Fast forward 10 years and Tom (Sean McCoy) has grown into a delightful child, scrappy and smart and completely devoted to his two dads, Hoke and Old Jake, and his doting “uncles” Boston (Scott McCormick), Moscow (Andy Brownstein), and Georgia (Joshua Drew).

The family has just settled around the cook stove while Old Jake strums his gee-tar and conducts the annual recounting of Tom’s birthday, when another female stranger bangs on the cabin door. Uppity Aunt Sarah (Becky Peters) arrives, frazzled from a decade-long search for her wayward sister.

No shocker what happens next. Aunt Sarah wants to pack up Tom and move him to Boston, where he’ll go to school, concerts and lectures and generally become a stuffed shirt (did we mention Aunt Sarah’s family is rich?). Hoke and the boys shed even more of their crust at the news, wanting Tom to stay with them and live a manly, outdoorsy life that’s rich in love.

The idea of Tom’s parting prompts more singing and guitar playing — apparently how taciturn men express grief. A few renditions of carols and salty miner’s songs later and it’s high time for the show’s syrupy, contrived ending, which has Tom and the gang crooning “Silent Night” a la “A Charlie Brown Christmas” while Hoke and Aunt Sarah make goo-goo eyes at one another. Good grief, as Charlie Brown would say.

The cockles of Mr. Allen and director Gregg Henry’s hearts must burn hotter than the Earth’s molten core to come up with something this unrelentingly heartwarming. You OD on good cheer pretty quickly, although Mr. Zidar’s burly voice and spare guitar riffs give Old Jake a gentle, grandfatherly charm you wouldn’t mind cozying up to yourself.

The rest of the actors are competent and often lively, although they don’t have much to work with except stock characters that frequently flirt with ethnic and gender stereotypes. They also have a tendency to stand dead still, as if waiting for Mathew Brady to drop by for a few daguerreotype photographs.

David Ghatan has crafted a lovingly rustic set replete with pine trees, wooden stools, frying pans and crackling fires. The homespun cowboy music is a pleasure too, although it does make the evening seem interminable. You have to have a high tolerance for hokum to endure the delivery of “The Christmas Founding’s” message about the worth of unconventional families.

**

WHAT: “The Christmas Foundling” by Norman Allen

WHERE: Journeymen Theater Ensemble at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE, Washington, D.C.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays (except Dec. 17). Through Dec. 31.

TICKETS: $15 to $20

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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