BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon Community Theatre veteran actor Brian Williams can’t say for sure, but he’s got an inkling that this year’s holiday show, “Miracle on 34th Street,” was chosen purposely.
Williams, who’s acted with or directed for BCT for 35 years, plays Fred Gayley, an earnest lawyer with a heart of gold who defends Kris Kringle – played by Dr. Rob Rupp – in a court of law.
Rupp’s character, who believes himself to be the real Santa Claus, is eventually institutionalized before Fred (Williams) steps in to defend him.
“I think it was chosen on purpose,” Williams said Tuesday of the BCT board of directors’ decision to select the Christmas classic, first portrayed in the 1947 film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and Edmund Gwenn. “I don’t know because I’m not on the board anymore, but I have a strong sense that somebody was thinking, ‘This is the perfect time for this show.’”
Williams said the play’s message about the importance of faith and belief in something that’s not provable is the “antithesis to the terrible cynicism” that has permeated U.S. social and political culture.
“There are lines that are absolutely appropriate for today, and today’s political climate,” Williams added. “It’s really wild.”
The show is “a story about coming to believe,” said Rupp, who is making his BCT debut after seeing his daughter, Abigail Rupp Benjamin, and grandchildren perform in “War of the Worlds” in October. (Benjamin; three of her daughters, Abigail Clare, Maria and Teresa; and one of her sons, Alex, also play parts alongside Rupp in “Miracle.”)
“Miracle on 34th Street” opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, at the Opera House on Main Street, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 16. Evening performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, and Saturday, Dec. 15, and two matinees are slated for 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
The play chronicles the journey of a woman named Doris Walker, portrayed by Lisa Bennett, and her daughter, Susan, played by Cheyenne Bolyard, both of whom make a transition from cynicism and doubt to faith and hope through their relationship with Kris Kringle and Fred, who is in love with Doris.
The story begins when a faux Santa Claus hired by Macy’s department store – played by Buckhannon mayor David McCauley – hits the bottle a little too hard, stumbles and literally falls to his demise, and a replacement must be found. Kris Kringle, Rupp’s character, scolds “Drunk Santa” (McCauley) for not taking his duties seriously, and soon, he’s tapped to play the part at Macy’s.
“This is really a story about belief, and it’s a positive story,” Rupp said Tuesday evening, as the cast was preparing for their second run-through in the Opera House. “I’m in it because my grandchildren and daughter are in it. In fact, this is the first major role I’ve had, but I came to it because it’s intergenerational. I’m Kris Kringle, and my grandchildren get to sit on my lap.”
Rupp said the tagline for “Miracle on 34th Street” is, in essence, “faith is believing in something you can’t prove.”
A politics and history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College and widely acknowledged as political expert in the Mountain State, Rupp said the story is germane to the current social and political climate in the state and nation.
“The story fits in on a number of levels, and almost all of them are highly optimistic – that’s why so many of us still remember the movie,” Rupp said. “It sends a positive message at a time when our politics are anything but positive, emphasizing criticism and negative attitudes, and a play like this is kind of an antidote – and a needed antidote – to that.”
Nine-year-old Cheyenne Bolyard, who plays Doris Walker’s daughter, Susan, said she thinks local residents will enjoy watching the story unfold. Bolyard explained that although her character doubts Kris Kringle is the “real Santa Claus” initially, that eventually changes.
“When he goes to court, I start believing in him because I write him a letter, and I tell him, ‘I believe in you,’ and he gets me what I really wanted – my Christmas wish. And also he acts like Santa Claus,” Cheyenne said.
“Miracle on 34th Street” will mark Cheyenne’s second time acting with BCT; she was in “Shrek” and said she’s glad to be back in a BCT show to hone her acting skills.
“I like that I get to work with wonderful people, and I get to have more acting experience because when I grow up, I want to be an actor,” she said.
Williams said his character, Fred Gayley, is Susan Walker’s babysitter, and his character is quite fond of Susan, viewing her as a daughter of sorts.
“What I like most about Fred is that he’s truly good-hearted and earnest, and everything about him is genuine,” Williams said Tuesday. “I love that. He’s almost an innocent in the beginning.”
Williams said his character is “won over almost instantly” by Kris Kringle from the debacle with “drunk Santa” at Macy’s as the story begins. So when Kris is committed to an insane asylum, Fred visits him.
“Kris tells Fred he believes in him – and that’s it,” Williams said. “He (Fred) can do anything, so the whole second act, Fred’s a whole different person. He’s this powerful lawyer who has an ace up his sleeve.”
And there isn’t a better time to see a BCT show and discover exactly what that ace is, Williams said. As an organization, BCT has recently experienced an influx of relatively new faces and “fresh energy.”
“This is a wonderful time to see that new energy, and it feels like new energy,” Williams said. “After all these years of doing these shows, I can tell you this has a very different feel to the old days. We always had fun, but this is fresh energy.”
BCT’s board of directors tapped professional director kb saine to direct the family-friendly holiday classic.
saine said she’s been impressed with the quality of acting and in particular, newcomer Lisa Bennett, who is cast as Doris Walker, for her talent and enthusiasm.
“There’s a really lovely journey that our lead female takes in her decision to believe or coming to believe,” saine said. “There’s just something that’s very universal about that and very sweet about the telling of it.
“The way the play’s written, you just cheer for everyone the whole way through,” she added. “It’s light-hearted and fun.”
Tickets, which cost $10, can be purchased at the door, but they’re also available in advance through Eventbrite.com. Search for Buckhannon Community Theatre on Facebook to find the Eventbrite link.