By Mary Boyle
Wisconsin-based actor, playwright, director, and author, James DeVita, is quite well-known in the theatre community; a core company member and literary manager at American Players Theater in Spring Green, he has been seen on stages all over Wisconsin, and his work has been performed on them, as well. Though his theatre education is what brought him to Wisconsin, DeVita grew up in a large Irish fishing family in North Babylon on Long Island, and it is his family and hometown that has inspired his latest play, Christmas in Babylon.
Terry McShane (Tom Klubertanz) and his wife, Denise (Mary MacDonald Kerr), are typical Babylonians: working-class Irish with enough wit and sarcasm to make up for the lack of money and social graces. A happily married couple, their greatest worry is their twenty something daughter, Abby (Sara Zientek), who just moved back home and can't seem to find her path; well ... that was their greatest worry, until Terry received an email from his ex-fiance, Kathleen O'Rourke (Laura Gray), who he hasn't heard from in over 25 years. Now a successful Life Coach and the author of several self-help books, Kathleen is in town for a speaking engagement and to spend the holidays with her daughter, Kelly (Eva Nimmer), but she also arrives to reveal a secret that will rock the McShane's world.
Reading the description, the play sounds like a drama, and certainly DeVita is known for more serious works and classical theatre, but this play is very much a comedy, and a brilliant one, at that. Working with his friend and longtime collaborator, C. Michael Wright, who is the Producing Artistic Director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, as well as the director of the play, the duo have managed to tell a story that is relatable to everyone, that contains sentiments that we all need to hear, and that is actually laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish.
"The thing I love about the piece in particular is that it’s funny, but it also deals with a lot of issues we deal with today, like forgiveness and acceptance, and the fact that we’re all part of a larger family," said Wright.
"In this play," DeVita explained, "Terry’s being challenged to think differently. And he resists it for a long time, or dismisses it, or makes fun of it, or this and that. I think the world today is being challenged to think differently about everything, and it’s a lot for some people; it gets overwhelming. But, if you can allow yourself to think differently about something, you might be able to accept it. It’d be a great world if we could all figure out how to do that. Myself included."
What makes Babylon work is the realness of the characters, who could not have been cast any better. Despite their Long Island accents, you will recognize yourself and people you know in these people; their struggles are our struggles and, because they are so familiar, watching the play feels like reconnecting with old friends; combine that with the intimacy of the Broadway Theatre Center's black box Studio Theatre and incredibly engaging writing, and the time passes quite pleasantly and almost too quickly. When all is said and done, Babylon is not the dramatic redemption of A Christmas Carol, nor the magical fantasy of The Nutcracker, yet it leaves you with a magical redemption; a simple, yet profound, peacefulness, like a quiet winter night by the fire. This is a thoroughly modern holiday tale that has all the wisdom and heart of a classic.
CHRISTMAS IN BABYLON runs Nov. 21 to Dec. 23 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, located at 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward. For tickets, call 414.291.7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.
About Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Milwaukee's third largest non-musical theatre company, has long been recognized as producing first-rate, thought-provoking drama and a major contributor to the rich cultural and economic life of the community. One of the city's oldest, professional theatre companies, MCT was co-founded in 1975 by two local actors, Montgomery Davis and Ruth Schudson, who envisioned a space where audiences could open their minds to new theatrical ideas and Milwaukee's theatre professionals could broaden their skills and apply their craft. C. Michael Wright, a local director and actor, was appointed as the company's second artistic director in September of 2005 and, under his leadership, MCT has produced smaller, more intimate productions that feature emerging local talent, expanding its programming in order to develop new voices, such as the annual Young Playwrights Series and the Montgomery Davis Play Development Series, honoring the company's founding artistic director.