By Mike Keenan
If weary from watching curmudgeonly Scrooge endure his annual encounter with four ghosts to help celebrate your Christmas, Norm Foster offers just the tonic this season at the extended Foster Festival in St. Catharines. The prolific Canadian playwright has penned yet another world premiere, which I recently enjoyed at a packed Recital Hall inside downtown’s beautiful Performing Arts Centre.
Foster Festival artistic director, Patricia Vanstone, explains that the idea for “Aunt Agnes for Christmas” came about over a celebratory lunch after the completion of The Foster Festival’s successful 2017 season of programming. “We decided the time was right to extend our season with a uniquely Canadian Christmas story that would engage the whole family.” Thus, we have “Aunt Agnes for Christmas” for 15 performances, December 11–22.
George and Sally Trimble live in an attractive, small town of 15,000. (Yes, it sounds remarkably like Niagara on the Lake.) She’s a perky young mayor, and George works for an R-V company where he has sold vehicles for 18 years.
The play begins two days before Christmas in a disorganized household complemented by two children. Melissa is a 14 year old teen who likes to read but typically struggles betwixt and between adulthood and childhood while younger brother Brian doesn’t say much, but excels at posturing, pretending to be first, Frank Sinatra with a fedora and later, Elvis, complete with wig and his signature “Thank you, thank you very much.”
Suddenly, amidst Christmas bedlam, George’s Aunt Agnes arrives for an unannounced visit, which perplexes George because he didn’t know that he had an aunt Agnes. Thus, as Shakespeare first announced in “King Henry IV Part I,” the audience knows that “the game is afoot.”
Longtime Shaw Festival performer, Nora McLellan, from the aforementioned Niagara-on-the-Lake, commands the lead role as Aunt Agnes, billed as “Mary Poppins with a touch of Auntie Mame.” She’s a tad crusty at times, but like Julie Andrews in the movie, firm yet gentle and kind. McLellan is a consummate pro who keeps the action moving, instructing Melissa along the way as she employs myriad magic to invent delicious meals, create ice for the local rink and generally assist George and Sally with their life predicaments.
Kelly Wong plays George, another Shaw stalwart, who just finished his 11th season. Wong is the ultimate optimist, fired from his job before his “Christmas bonus” and humiliated by a childhood tormentor to wear a silly chipmunk outfit to sell used cars. Nonetheless, he displays unabashed enthusiasm for his wife and family.
Young Niagara Falls actor, Kate Peters, plays Melissa. In a post-play talk, McLellan raved about Peters and described their private duo rehearsals as they got to know and appreciate each other. Sally is played convincingly by local actor Cosette Derome, and Hayden Neufeld from Niagara-on-the-Lake plays Brian. Busy Hayden played Oliver in Garden City Productions’ “Oliver Twist,” directed by another Shaw veteran, Donna Belleville. He received musical theatre training with NOTL’s Yellow Door Theatre Project. Vanstone described how important it was to properly coordinate the children with parents, school and rehearsal times.
Yet another Shaw veteran, Peter Hartwell’s set is deceivingly simple, allowing McLellan to command centre stage and descend a staircase à la Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly.”
In her program notes, director Patricia Vanstone says, “We’ve had a blast exploring this sweet story of a busy family making room for “Aunt Agnes for Christmas.” I always say that with Norm’s writing, the funny takes care of itself. This magical company of actors has dug into the story with all their hearts. What a treat it is to welcome Nora McLellan back in a role that fits her to a T, and real-life spousal unit Kelly Wong and Cosette Derome (who last graced the Foster Festival stage in our smash hit “Renovations For Six”).”
The production, light and fluffy like the snow outside, was well received by the large audience, many of whom remained for the post-play talk with the cast and director, Vanstone. It appears that Foster has created a Christmas rival to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
For more information or tickets, visit www.fosterfestival.com/site/auntagnes-for-christmas.
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