She may be known as lonely housewife Shirley Valentine to many who have seen her in Canadian theatre, but B.C. actress/playwright Nicola Cavendish, who grew up right here in the Okanagan, has a Mrs. Claus’ sensibility when it comes to her heartwarming and very silly play, It’s Snowing on Saltspring.
Gift wrapped for the first time by a community theatre, that being Vernon’s very own Powerhouse, the 26-year-old Christmas-set story, originally staged by Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, is the perfect remedy for anyone with Scrooge-like symptoms or seasonal affective disorder.
It is cheery and bright, with a good dose of satire in case anyone gets too much of a sugar high, but it has that message of finding the true meaning of Christmas that we know so well.
The play is mostly geared towards adults, with even a penis joke thrown in, but the fantasy sequence is deliriously childlike.
What is especially notable about It’s Snowing on Saltspring is the characters it depicts. These are not your typical vegan, tree-hugging hippies that you would expect to live on the Gulf Islands. But then again, Salt Spring Island is not Hornby.
Besides all the famous musicians and artists that live there, it has a wide range of people who have escaped big cities, large Prairie farms, and wherever else to live on a little piece of mostly green paradise.
And yes, it rarely snows.
Cavendish does well in encapsulating the eccentricities of the five main characters who make up the play.
There’s former dentist and lost soul Bill Bannister (played here by the doe-eyed Geoff Ingram, who does a wonderful job of playing a down-on-his-luck sad sack.)
Bill has some serious daddy issues and is going through one hell of a mid-life crisis. He wallows in self pity on Christmas Eve, sitting on the couch munching away at these vile chocolate covered marshmallow treats called Viva Puffs. (Perhaps a PG stand in for what a lot of Gulf Islanders really tend to puff.)
His very pregnant wife, Sarah (the absolutely delightful Cara Nunn), is supportive when Bill burns rubber in the fireplace instead of hanging up the stockings, but she reaches her boiling point when her hapless husband does something so underhandedly sneaky, even Clarence the bell beckoned angel from It’s a Wonderful Life would make him jump to his demise.
There to lend support to Sarah and Bill are their lovable and rather randy neighbours, the Kanes.
Marti Kane (played in breezy, beautiful fashion by Sue Johnson) sweeps in the Bannisters’ door in a tie-dyed blur, with a bottle of bubbly and some groan-inducing dirty jokes. Her preacher husband, Chris (director Dave Sayer doing double duty here), espouses biblical passages in a booming voice and a devilish twinkle in his eye.
They are a long-married couple still in love and not scared to show it.
Enter cowboy/rodeo/women-lovin’ realtor Bernice Snarpley (the always fabulous Jean Given), who talks like a southern gal although she is originally from the Prairies. Bernice croons Patsy Cline and cries about Shirl, the one that got away, and puts the comic in relief.
Oh, and I’d be remiss to not mention Karma the dog (Mike Ruscheinsky, operating the rather worn looking puppet on loan from the Arts Club) who barks up a storm to the chagrin of Snarpley.
None of these characters can do enough to get Bill out of his humdrum state, so it takes a little Twilight Zone-like intervention from the man in the big, red sleigh.
The second act is where the silliness really comes to play when Bill is whisked away by Kris Kringle, aka Crumpet Drawers, aka jolly ol’ St. Nick (Sayer, looking rather fitting in his Santa suit), to the North Pole.
Once there, it’s obvious that it’s Kringle’s wife, Martha (looking an awful lot like Johnson, wink, wink), that runs the show.
Everyone talks in rhyming couplets in the candy cane-laden land, and the head elves, Peggy O’Darby (Nunn) and Grindle O’Darby (Niven), have rather porcine features and snort a lot –– even behind closed doors (nudge, nudge). And then there’s also the talking Rudolph with his giant, glowing red nose (another puppet operated by Ruscheinsky).
No, I haven’t been smoking any of those Viva Puffs, I swear!
Life in the North Pole is a rather strange transition for the audience –– although Bill seems to adapt to it quite well –– but it really does look magical thanks to set designer Eugene Leveque and his crew of hard-working elves. (Especially notable is the conveyor belt that traverses the top of the stage and drops presents into Santa’s sleigh.)
Although a little distracting from the message at hand, the fantasy does help Bill see the error of his ways as he returns home to his little Saltspring cottage where, lo and behold, the white stuff starts falling.
It’s a pretty picture, and I think Cavendish would be proud of what the Powerhouse cast and crew have done with her sweet and sassy ode to the holidays. It’s a crazy time, indeed.
It’s Snowing on Saltspring continues at Powerhouse Theatre until Dec. 18. Times and tickets are available at the Ticket Seller, 549-7469, ticketseller.ca.
–– Kristin Froneman is the arts editor at The Morning Star