"The Christmas Foundling" is a sweet little tale about family

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Heather Mall.

Pride Films and Plays, already featuring a holiday show in their other theatre, has added a second one at their smaller Buena Theatre space. The Christmas Foundling, written by Norman Allen, is a sweet, cozy little play that fits perfectly into this space. Co-directed by Danne W. Taylor and David Zak, the play tells a story of a child that is orphaned in a Sierra Mountains gold mining camp on Christmas Eve and raised by two men who live together there, with the help of the rest of the town. The boy’s presence changes all of their lives for the better, forcing them to reign in their gruffer natures and to focus their lives for the first time on someone who depends upon them…until the boy’s aunt shows up to claim him for her own.

It takes a decade for Sarah (BethAnn Smukowski), a woman bred in the upper-class confines of Beacon Hill in Boston, to sojourn across the country, following rumors of her long-lost sister’s path, before finally landing in the tiny haven where she died giving birth. (Whether even that is at all likely in the mid-19th Century is open for debate, but we’ll accept the premise.) In that time, young Tom (Henry Lombardo) has been brought up by Hoke (Fiore Barbini) and Old Jake (Michael D. Graham), who have tried to instill in the boy some basic values and an appreciation for life and nature. What they have not done (to Sarah’s horror when she discovers it) is to teach Tom to read and write; neither they nor anyone else in the camp is literate.

The two men are aided in their child-rearing endeavor by three other long-time miners who take Tom under their wings. Boston (Zane Sade), Moscow (Leo LaCamera), and Georgia (Max McKune), whose names (assigned at some point in the past by Old Jake) reflect their origins, are younger men who have been seasoned by their search for gold. Before Tom’s arrival, they spent their time galavanting and carousing in nearby Columbia, where they could gamble and go to brothels; since then, though, they have found their happiness closer to home.

The production leans just a bit into a possible relationship between Hoke and Old Jake, though there is nothing specific in the script to suggest one (and in fact Hoke and Sarah develop more than a friendship as they seek common ground regarding Tom). What is certain, though, is that both of these men have fallen in love with their foundling child and re-centered their lives around him. So when Sarah shows up (again at Christmas time—the play, for the most part, takes place at various Christmases in these men’s lives), her relationship to the boy (confirmed by indisputable means) threatens to blow up their happy lives.

Infused with music (both traditional Christmas songs and original compositions by music director Dr. Michael McBride) sung and played on autoharp and guitar, The Christmas Foundling is an unabashedly positive play despite its conflicts. Rarely have 49-ers been depicted with such compassion, and a love and appreciation of nature is a huge part of the play’s DNA. The performances on opening night were a bit uneven, but Graham (though he hardly seems “old” enough for his character’s moniker) anchors everything well in his central role as Old Jake, whose giving spirit most definitely is not limited to the Christmas season. 

Overall, this little play, while rather predictable—but then again what holiday show isn’t?—is still able to warm the soul. Its message about the meaning of family is welcome as the holidays are upon us, with a reminder that blood is not the only criterion. In fact, this chosen family is easily as good for Tom, and in many ways is better, than his actual kin. But this play does not vilify Sarah or her family either; instead, Allen makes it clear that many elements go into becoming a family and raising a child well and every one of them is important.

The Christmas Foundling is a Pride Films and Plays production now playing at the Buena Theatre of the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Jan 5. The show runs approximately 100 minutes; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com

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