It's become a contemporary truism that the "most wonderful time of the year" really isn't so wonderful for a lot of people. From shopping stress to fractious family visits, the holiday season can test even the most placid.
Tidings from the Seasonally Affected, the new play from Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, tackles this familiar theme from a fresh angle. We see the holidays through the eyes of Sam, who is spending her first holiday after moving from an institution to a group home for people with disabilities. Will this holiday be a better one for Sam, or just more of the same in a new location?
Written by KelsyAnne Schoenhaar and Wendy Prosise, Tidings freely mixes comedy and drama. Scenes alternate with wacky musical interludes from singer Christie Stadele, whose ditties cover holidays from Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa to Festivus. (Stadele's left me with "happy cheese and pork day" stuck in my head, but that's another story.)
Tidings is more about character studies than a jam-packed plot. It's set in 1977, described by Schoenhaar and Prosise in the show's program as "the golden age of group homes," when people with disabilities moved out of large institutions. We see the various styles of interaction of staff in the institution and group home. There's Leanne (Rachel Friedman), a support worker at the institution who snaps "Sit! Sit!" at a recalcitrant resident. It's little wonder that Leanne's previous job, we learn, was at a kennel.
And then there are those who would rather not deal with the residents' more challenging behaviors. At the group home, the manager simply disappears or fobs off more difficult tasks on Janet (Cara E. Peterson), a new employee. Rather than choosing authoritarian control or avoidance, Janet makes an effort to connect with the residents, including Sam, relating to them as people and not problems. Over some contraband pizza, Janet confides that the holidays are hard for her, too, because of a family tragedy.
Sam, played by Jennifer Scott, carries us on a journey from unhappiness to appreciating the fact that someone cares about her. In addition to Janet, she's got Bobbie (a spirited Robin Parks), her best friend from the institution.
Heather Schey deserves special note for her comic role as Abbey, whose TV-monopolizing and loud bellows of "Shuuuut uuuup!" leave other residents and staff cowed. Though the role is funny, it also makes a point about how staff working with group-home residents sometimes choose the path of least resistance, even if it's not fair to others. Connie Alsum is also noteworthy as Gertie, whose Pollyanna-like Christmas cheer is shaken by perceived rejection from her family.
Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, the only professional theater company for people with disabilities in Wisconsin, deserves credit for presenting original work that avoids the extremes of holiday schmaltz or self-conscious cynicism. Instead, Tidings looks at the emotional hurdles of the holidays from a perspective that many of us haven't considered, suggesting that we could all use an extra dose of empathy.