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Christmas play lives up to its name

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Think of every rotten kid you knew in school:  the tripper, the booger-flicker, the slugger or the bully. 

The Herdmans are all those kids rolled into one nasty family. They are characters in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” playing this weekend at the John Dowdall Theatre.

It’s also one of my favorite books, right up there with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars, even the girls, hit little kids and cussed at their teachers and took the Lord’s name in vain ...” is the opening of the play and the book of the same name by Barbara Robinson.

There are six Herdman children:  Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys. “They moved through Woodrow Wilson school like those South American fish that strip your bones clean in three minutes flat,” according to narrator Beth Bradley, played by Hannah Madsen. 

Not to reveal too much of the plot, but children in the community were only safe from the Herdmans at church or Sunday school until Charlene Bradley, Beth’s little sister, played by Bella Smith, spilled the beans. Charlene, angry because Leroy Herdman had stolen the dessert from her lunch for three days in row, tells Leroy it’s okay, because she can get as much dessert as she wants at Sunday school.

The Herdman children decide to go to Sunday school and feast on Twinkies, cookies and cupcakes, too.

Meanwhile, Helen Armstrong, portrayed by Kezia Mutchler, seasoned director of the church’s Christmas play, injures her foot and is hospitalized. As happens the world over, other church ladies tackle the problem and decide, via vintage phones in tangerine, turquoise and flamingo pink, that Grace Bradley will direct the play.

Desiree Alexander takes on Grace Bradley’s role. Although husband Bob, played by Matthew Sisler, is unwilling, she forces him to help her with the Herdman children and the Christmas play.

Hilarity reigns as the play goes on, so be prepared to laugh at spunky Gladys Herdman, acted by Mesa McKee with a sideways ponytail and an attitude. Tough Imogene Herdman, portrayed by Cassie Carlyle, wears big earrings, and her scrofulous siblings have dirty faces, stained T-shirts, scruffy jeans and mismatched socks, making them the envy of the other children in the play.

(Mrs. Herdman never makes an appearance; she’s busy working double shifts at the shoe factory to avoid her offspring. She occasionally does walk the Herdmans’ crazed cat on a length of chain. Mr. Herdman, so the story goes, had the good sense to hop a train when Gladys was two.)

Snotty Alice Wendelken, played by Anya Smith, channels Nellie Olson from “Little House on the Prairie.” “Nasty clean,” according to the book, Wendelken wants to play Mary and tattles to her mother about everything.

Applesauce cakes, a narcoleptic piano player, cigars, angels and the baby Jesus all add interest as the Herdman kids hear the Christmas story for the first time and add their own spin.

Karen Lewing directs the play, and she and Neal work their familiar magic designing and lighting the set. Six-month-old Rivers Lewing makes his stage debut during a live nativity at the end of the show. 

So forget frankincense and myrrh; bring baby Jesus something useful and come enjoy this play. Shazaam. 

(“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” produced by special permission with Samuel French, Inc., plays at the John Dowdall Theatre from Nov. 30 through Dec. 9. Shows are at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sundays.)   


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