"The Christmas Express," the current holiday gift at Playcrafters Barn Theatre in Moline, is as sweet and comfy cozy as sipping hot cocoa in your PJs by a roaring fireplace.
Director John Weigandt -- who also designed the lovely train-station set and the lighting -- wonderfully conjures this homespun, nostalgic story of hope and magic and faith, ideally suited to the season. In his director's note in the program, Mr. Weigandt says a good storyteller can make you recall the way things used to be, and a really good one can make you nostalgic for a time and place that maybe never were.
We all long for a simpler, less stressful time, and the 1950s setting at the Holly Railway Station the day before Christmas Eve fills the bill. The frazzled, grouchy Hilda (the station owner played perfectly by Nancy Teerlinck, but wouldn't it have been more appropriate to have her named Ivy?) longs to travel, to escape. She's fed up with the way things are -- business has disappeared; the town has fallen on hard times. She remembers the good old days, when the station was bustling, as the hub of the city, and life was more genteel and civilized.
The dreary tedium and arguments with the bumbling, sarcastic Satch (lovably played by Bill Peiffer) are interrupted by the appearance of the mysterious Leo Tannenbaum, who appears to be a traveling salesman. Embodied with great calm, peace and selflessness by Dave Bailey, Leo is a gentle man, smiling, and deviously suppressing some sort of secret.
Leo brings optimism, imagination, and light to a pretty hopeless place. He magically fixes Satch's watch and the radio, which were not working. Hilda is still cynical and sports a perpetual scowl (the play's designated Scrooge).Leo wants them to decorate a Christmas tree, perk the place up.
Later, he just happens to have much-needed tinsel in his briefcase. (He's like the perfect mother who always has what you need in her purse.) A dowdy choir director, Myrna (played with fierce determination by Donna Weeks), wants the town's denizens -- including mail carrier Maggie (Lisa Kahn) and reporter Penelope (Carli Talbott) -- to learn carols.
Their rehearsal of "The 12 Days of Christmas" is agonizing to listen to, but a hoot nonetheless. (What are "calling birds" anyway?) Leo comes up with a pitch pipe and motivation for the four to sing better, to feel the song and the season's excitement. They actually sing together in the same key (another miracle!).
Donna Fay (an emotional Liz Paxton) is also looking to escape, after having a fight with her husband, Jerry (Nicholas Waldbusser). Mr. Fairfax (Don Hazen) is another mysterious gent who shows up, apparently taking inventory for the station's owner, causing anxiety among the station regulars.
Of course, Leo becomes a marriage mediator between Donna and Jerry. We learn that the "Christmas Express" is not just a train, but "a feeling, a sound, a sensation, an unexpected visitor, a gift." It is the true expression of Christmas, representing all that is good and decent about the human spirit. We find out the real identity of Mr. Fairfax, and that Leo is not selling anything, but giving. He symbolizes hope, a guardian angel for poor, downtrodden souls.
Leo is the warm, shining sun around which these crazy, flawed planets are orbiting, and he rescues them all. We can easily identify with the eccentric characters, and like a treasured present we've always dreamed of getting, we long for someone like Leo in our own lives. We can learn from his example, and not leave that comforting feeling of togetherness and joy inside the theater.
If you go
-- What: "The Christmas Express." -- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. -- Where: Playcrafters Barn Theatre, 4950 35th Ave., Moline. -- Tickets: $10. Call (309) 762-0330 or go to playcrafters.com.