By Patrick O’Brien
When one sees a musical multiple times, there’ll always be some new focus. A familiar melody finally reveals a leitmotif; a passing reference finally clicks; or some lines simply stick out more prominently than they did before. Perhaps especially so during Christmastime, a season that encourages this sort of reflection and reassessment.
This year, at Mercury Theater’s reliable chestnut, The Christmas Schooner, that honored line is “Like it or not, you’re an American.”
That line gives this cozy musical hearth its fire, for even now, the naturalized descendants of those enterprising immigrants are still trying to figure out what being an American means.
Alma Stossel and her merchant sailing husband Peter (Brianna Borger and Stef Tovar, welcome as always) believe being American means seizing opportunities that small provincial Germany could not provide. But Alma becomes less sure about that when, more or less on a whim, Peter risks his life out on the tempestuous autumnal Lake Michigan to sell that most American of goods: happiness. Old World happiness, at that; he’s shipping tannenbaums, Christmas trees, from the Upper Peninsula to Chicago.
Why risk everything on something so intangible? Peter’s reasoning is the stuff boot straps are made of: If he doesn’t do it, who will? Even when there comes a great personal cost, who but a Stossel will extend the green Old World branch of peace to the busy, muddy New?
Schooner is always a good choice for the season. Local actor and playwrite John Reeger’s script is broad, certainly — no more than Don Forston as Gustav, Peter’s grizzled deadpan vater. Sentimental, certainly, but the ending is hard to resist, when other cultures have adopted the tannenbaum for their own for another American reason: the neighbors have one.
Pensive, certainly, with an abiding respect for the lake and those who dare to try her. Each successive year Schooner plays is another chance to hear the exquisite songsuite by Julie Shannon, burning with what promise she could fulfill in a regretfully shortened career. Hearing how she weaves Old carols through New songs, particularly during the inciting letter sequence and the Act One finale, is so clever and moving for being so simple an idea. And there is no finer not-quite-Christmas Christmas song than the plaintive and anxious “What is it About the Water,” a tribute to the hearty few who may not be home for Christmas.
Sometimes, it takes a crucible — roughing out a storm, perhaps — to find out what being an American means. It generally means something peculiar, like combining the Old and the New and seeing what sticks. The tannenbaums have continually survived cultural upheavals, and they mean something for everyone who takes one — tradition, symbolism, or for the helluvit.
Take in Schooner, a similarly worthy tradition, and pass it on.
Mercury Theater Chicago presents “The Christmas Schooner”through December 31 at 3745 N. Southport Ave. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett A. Beiner.