OFP takes familial look at the religions of Christmas

Jonathan Robbins, as Sam Barton, dances with wife "Shel", Richar Abel while daughter Alexis Klein, played by Maren Robbins, watches on as part of a rehearsal for OFPs' "The Dividing Tree". Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – It’s not your typical holiday season community playhouse production. But that’s not what Old Fort Players director Kelly Shields wanted when she agreed to direct the program.

This isn’t the year for holiday cheer and Christmas carols, but more of latkes, a menorah, a Christmas tree and an ongoing familial clash over how a divided family can find peace during the holiday season while balancing the reasons for the “westernized’ Christmas and the traditional Jewish Hanukkah holiday.

OFP Presents “The Dividing Tree” a two-act play by Mark Ogle, beginning on Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m.

Sam Barton, played by OFP actor Jonathan Robbins, is a Christian and his wife Michelle (“Shel’), played by OFP veteran Richar Abel, is Jewish. Neither of them practiced their religions faithfully in the past and both brought children into the marriage. The couple thought they could conduct holidays respecting how the children had celebrated in the past, but traditions knock together in this sometimes humorous and sometimes intense two-act play.

Other cast members include Sam’s 13-year-old daughter Marie played by Xandra Abel, and Shel’s two children, VJ Myers played by Colby Moore, and Alexis Klein, brought to life by newcomer Maren Robbins. Shel’s father, Jerry Solomon is played by Jim French and Nora Barton, Sam’s mother is played by Peggy Bell.

VJ rejects most religious practices and thought in favor of environmentalism, while Alexis is excited about the materialism of her new Christian family opportunities. Marie tries to find a balance between the two. They’re all working at cross purposes.

Shields said when she decided to step in and direct the OFP’s holiday production she sought something with more realism that the usual song and dance holiday offerings.

“I was kind of tired of the too sweet Christmas play where everyone sings happy… happy… happy so I thought, ‘ why don’t we go for a little more realism’,” Shields said. “So instead of looking for a Christmas play, I Googled for a holiday play so we could find a bit more diversity in how we look at a Christmas play.  I read the synopsis for it and in the first part of it I was struck by how few walls were in this script. There was no design for the set at all it just made suggestions…director chooses, director chooses so I thought okay, they wanted the director to use their imagination and I thought that’s what we need – a little imagination.”

She said the play struck her as something akin to “Our Town” saying the play allowed for creativity and permits the players to interpret more of their roles.

“The cast is very quick and the kids are great. They have so much talent there. Each one read for their part and I knew they were the ones. It’s encouraging kids to use their imaginations and to deal with the issues their characters are dealing with and it allows them to be real kids,” Shields said.

Sam finds himself conflicted trying to hold to traditional Christmas traditions, while respecting his commitment to his wife and her family that the holidays would be easy to navigate – all while trying to hold down his job as an attorney representing energy interests, which finds him at odds with VJ’s principles.

“The line I love the most is ‘You don’t want to bring your work home, but it’s bringing you home in a straight jacket.’,” She said. “One of the conflicts is the lack of communication and that’s very real and a part of a lot of peoples’ everyday life. I got really excited about it.”

She said everyone builds internal and mental walls and we deal with them in different ways. “The Dividing Tree” portrays how different approaches to dealing with those walls can fit, or in some cases, divide loved ones.

“It really is a play that works in a real-time kind of way, to have two families that are so different, work together to become a single unit. The music at the end is supposed to reflect that,” she said.

The menorah and the tree are the icons in the play that divide the family and then actually bring them back together.

The play is sponsored by Connections Bank and Insurance.  The performances are Dec. 8-10 and 15-16 with all show times at 7:30 p.m. except for a Sunday, Dec. 10 2 p.m. matinee.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for children at the OFP playhouse at 725 Avenue G. Tickets are for sale prior to show time and for more information contact the playhouse at 319-372-9559 or visit the website at www.oldfortplayers.com or at Facebook at the following link https://www.facebook.com/Old-Fort-Players-126581100737291/.

The Barton children, VJ, Alexis and Marie argue about the best way to apply tinsel to the family Christmas tree in a rehearsal of “The Dividing Tree” the Old Fort Players holiday production. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

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