12/05/2014 03:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stage Door: A Christmas Memory, On the Other Side of the River


The story opens with a gentle exclaim: "It's fruitcake weather!" Sook, a 60-something Southern woman, and Buddy, a young boy, embark on their yearly Christmas ritual: baking holiday fruitcakes. The tenderness between the two, locked together in a Depression-era world, is the essence of A Christmas Memory.

Now playing at the DR2 Theater off-Broadway, the Irish Rep has transformed Truman Capote's moving, semi-autobiographical short story into a touching musical.

All events are narrated by an adult Buddy (Ashley Robinson). He wistfully recalls that despite his success as a writer in New York, Monroeville, Alabama, remains his true home.

And home means his distant cousin Sook (a wonderful Alice Ripley, who won the Tony for Next To Normal). In her worn calico dress and frayed hat, she and young Buddy (Silvano Spanguolo) are inseparable. Together, they raise money each year for their fruitcakes. Even President Roosevelt merits one. The trick is to raise enough money to afford them. The duo's most lucrative venture, their Fun and Freak Museum, netted $20 two summers ago.

Songs like "Alabama Fruitcake" and "Paper and Cotton" celebrate a childhood of homemade gifts and boxes of simple treasures. Memory and moment come together in ordinary ways. Such as when Sook gives Buddy advice on choosing a Christmas tree: "It should be twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star," she explains.

Dear Sook. She is the only ally for the youngster in a house populated by his controlling aunt Jennie (Nancy Hess) and her sickly brother Seabon (Samuel Cohen). They, alongside neighborhood girl Nelle Harper (Taylor Richardson), a stand-in for Capote's childhood friend Harper Lee, define his insular world.

But Those Who Know Best, as Buddy puts it, have insidious plans all their own.

Capote is a master of Southern prose; its lilting and languid tones, rich in description and character. The extraordinary friendship between the loving Sook and Buddy is heartwarming. The two click. Despite the decades that separate them, they achieve harmony. Sook, wrapped in simple kindness, is for Buddy, his one enduring link to familial love.

Disappointed she can't afford to buy him a bike, she exclaims: "If only I could, Buddy. It's bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have."

Duane Poole's adaption adds twists to Capote's original story, given poignancy by Larry Grossman's heartwarming music and Carol Hall's on-target lyrics. David Toser's costumes also hit the mark. The performances do too; of special note, both kids -- Spanguolo and Richardson -- have terrific voices.

Capote's 1956 remembrance of a 1933 Christmas isn't maudlin. Rather, it's a potent reminder that the most memorable unions often happen when we are young. What binds us is an immutable connection to unadulterated love.

Conversely, the revival of the 1906 Yiddish play On the Other Side of the River by Peretz Hirshbein, is more raw emotion than story. Dubbed "the Yiddish Maeterlinck" because his plays were done in the Symbolism style, Hirshbein trumpeted mood over plot, favoring imagination and dreams.

While it's an interesting 60-minute experiment, the play, now at the Here Theater, isn't as accessible as many Yiddish satires, melodramas or works that addressed social issues of the day. When the U.S. entered WWI, there were 22 Yiddish theaters in New York City alone.

On the Other Side of the River posits a blind grandfather (David Greenspan) and his granddaughter (Jane Cortney) trapped in a wooden house as the river rises. They are frightened; indeed, they exist more as essences -- fear or trauma -- than fully dimensional beings.

The problem is, it's all raw emotion, which is hard to play and often, harder to watch. The girl is overcome by the elements when suddenly a mysterious man (David Arkema) appears. His hold on her, both physical and psychological, has unforeseen consequences.

In fairness, this is a tough production to direct and perform. It's all primal reactions, which can be unnerving, though Nick Solyom's lighting design, delivers an eerie, hypnotic effect one suspects Hirshbein would have liked.

"Every thing has a reason, we just have to find it," screams the grandfather. Despite the cast's efforts, the reason for this production eludes me.