As of this writing, it’s two days after Christmas, one day before my birthday (also Denzel Washington’s), and I’m at Camp bar sitting at one of the last shows of Miracle on Christmas Lake. At this point, I’ve been oversaturated with Christmas content since November 29th. The idea of seeing another holiday show doesn’t seem too thrilling, but Miracle on Christmas Lake has been running long enough that I stow my immediate cynicism. I’m glad I did this as quelling snark made the show greater for everyone.
Produced by the Actors Theater of Minnesota, Miracle on Christmas Lake tells the story of Tess and Collin, two New Yorkers who have recently moved back to Collin’s childhood home Christmas Lake (to my surprise, this is a real place and not some thematically appropriate joke). After inheriting his father’s old theater, Collin and his wife must put on a show to keep the place afloat. But when the rights to their play get pulled one-day before the show they must find something else to perform. Frantic for money, performers, and marital help the two discover what they need from one another is exactly what it takes to put on a show.
Peterson writes in a style best known in the network television sitcoms of the past thirty years; the jokes have setups so obvious the laughs feel instructional. And while that might seem like a negative, it’s not. Listen, if you’re the type of person that thinks comedy has to be cutting edge or incredibly niche then your not really getting the point of comedy. Take it from a stand-up/sketch writer/comedic columnist, it isn’t about the rep, it’s about the laughs. The humor might be a bit obvious, but anyone watching can tell you the play gets results the way 3-camera sitcoms have for years.
This is mainly due to two things: tight pacing developed from great directing and fantastic acting from Fjaere Harder Nussbaum. Director John Haynes clearly has had the actors play improv acting and singing exercises because this cast imbued every second with energy. One joke led to the other in a jam-packed show full of laughs. The yucks weren’t exclusively spoken either--a great deal of laughter came from the physical routines that the cast wonderfully executed on their tight stage. Some of these moments came from the delightful work of Nussbaum. The actor’s meek and sexually-charged Martha Knutson was an audience favorite. Her colloquial idiosyncrasies and out of place lizard gave the show the dash of absurdism you love to talk about on the drive home.
Special note should also be made for Charla Marie Bailey. Playing two roles challenges any actor, but when the characters seem to be complete opposites the performer must push themselves with big creative choices. It’s a tightrope to make sure the audience doesn’t confuse one role for the other while at the same time not seeming too over the top. Bailey rises to the challenge and never allows anyone to confuse Gloria for Ms. Burlington or vice versa. Both women have different voices, styles, intentions, and comedic timing. After every costume change, the actor works twice as hard to make Gloria and Ms. Burlington unmistakable.
The show tends to rely on local flair for a lot of jokes. At times there’s punching down on what should be wholesome Midwestern staples. However, this is always done in good fun as any Minnesotan can tell you--we’re a weird bunch.
The Actors Theater of Minnesota’s, Miracle on Christmas isn’t designed to appease the cynical, overly-saturated viewer most of us have become. It’s meant to entertain us. The show’s genuine nature is the point. With strong direction and outstanding acting, the play makes laughter from something that is light and grand and wholesome; which is totally the point of the season.