A relentless snow is falling in turn-of-the-century New York City. Two young street urchins crouch on the steps of an elegant house, wrap their rags tight against the cold, and comfort each other by sharing their dreams. Because they cling to the illusion that life will soon get better, they survive.
Explains Nashville Children’s Theatre artistic director Scot Copeland, this scene is about truth. But it’s also about magic. “There’s magic going on all around us, it just kinda looks like everyday life,” he says. “We’re so used to miracles that we stop taking the time to be in awe of them. But it’s still magic.”
Ordinary magic provides the framework for Laurie Brooks Gollobin’s new play, The Match Girl’s Gift: A Christmas Story, which runs through Dec. 16 at the NCT mainstage theater at 724 Second Ave. S. Because all the shows for the Weekend Family Series have already sold out, NCT has added an additional Saturday matinee on Dec. 12 at 2:30 p.m. The show stars Misty Lewis as Lizzie, the little match girl; Brandon Boyd as her friend Pitch; Rona Carter as Lizzie’s grandmother; and Harrison Williams, Teddy Giles, and Evelyn Blythe as the family residing in the grand house.
Rather than adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story, Gollobin chose to write a theatrical variation inspired by the original. Her motivation was simpleshe didn’t want the little match girl to die. “I guess it’s a political thing. I wanted her to save herself,” says the New York-based playwright. In the original story, the pathetic orphan escapes from the bitter winds into a fantasy world where she is warm and happy. With each return to reality, she grows colder and colder and eventually freezes to death.
In Gollobin’s version, however, Lizzie is joined by her friend, Pitch, a ragamuffin “climbing boy” who earns a living by cleaning out chimneys. Huddled together with Pitch, the little match girl shares her fantasies of entering the grand home and living with the family there. When the glorious visions pass, however, she grows exhausted and defeated. “I’m done with dreamin’,” she tells Pitch.
“If you won’t dream, then I can’t,” Pitch answers. So they both struggle on, having opened the gift of hope.
In addition to exploring individual relationships, the play also poses questions about America’s greater social responsibilities. “You can see this as a turn-of-the-century melodrama, but the truth is, these two children, in absolute historical accuracy, are fighting for bare survival,” Copeland says. “They could die on the street that night. It was true of that time and place, and it’s true of our own. Christmas is the best time to look at the larger social picture. It’s the time to think about children who are on the street and hungry. Laurie and I felt strongly that we need to make a positive statement, because we want to be able, in metaphor, to say to kids, ‘you’re capable.’ ”
Through Lizzie’s fantasies, Gollobin unveils this social aspect of the story. Guided by a grandmother who comes to her as an angel, Lizzie has three chances to dream. In her imagination, she visits the family of the prosperous architect who lives inside the impenetrable grand house. The three family members are not cruel, but merely complacentoverwhelmed by the social ills that the impoverished children on their front steps signify. So, without rancor, they step over the orphans and seek their sheltered warmth.
“One of the things I like about this play is that Henry, the child of the house, is the one who first starts opening his eyes,” Copeland says. “There’s a sense from Henry that somehow they should be paying attention to [the freezing children outside], which leads to a struggle between a father who wants his adolescent son to accept responsibility, and a son who ultimately shows what accepting responsibility really is. And that’s a remarkable gift Henry gives to his father.”
Although Gollobin’s play removes much of the heartbreaking drama of Andersen’s original version, at the same time, The Match Girl’s Gift offers far more substance than many other holiday favorites. For instance, the musical Annie ends with Daddy Warbucks not only welcoming the little redhead and her dog into his mansion, but saving all the female orphans of New York. Instead, Gollobin ends her story with Pitch on the outside, envisioning himself growing up and sweeping the sidewalks of fine neighborhoods.
“The truth is that some kids are saved and some are not,” Gollobin says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to Pitch in the end. But he’s pretty indomitable.”
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