Janus Theatre serves up family drama in 'The Long Christmas Dinner'

  • The cast of "The Long Christmas Dinner" includes Crystal Skipworth, left, Michael Wagman, Ann Marie Nordby, Matt Hellyer, Richard Isemonger and Jan Jacobs. Not pictured is Trace Gamache.

    The cast of "The Long Christmas Dinner" includes Crystal Skipworth, left, Michael Wagman, Ann Marie Nordby, Matt Hellyer, Richard Isemonger and Jan Jacobs. Not pictured is Trace Gamache. Courtesy of Richard Pahl

 
By Jamie Greco
Daily Herald correspondent
Posted12/12/2019 6:00 AM

Christmas dinner with the family is as relatable as decorated trees and wrapped gifts to those who celebrate. The tradition will be brought to life in Janus Theatre Company's production of "The Long Christmas Dinner," a Thornton Wilder play that follows the ever-changing, yet still alike Bayard Family.

The play opens Friday, Dec. 13, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 22 at Al's Cafe, 43 DuPage Court, Elgin. Tickets are $15 plus dinner.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Bayards spend every Christmas together at the dinner table, as nearly 100 years go by.

"This play is unique in that it takes place in the family home on Christmas Day over 90 years," said Crystal Skipworth of St. Charles, who plays Leonora Banning Bayard. "It's interactive because of the setting in the restaurant and time is leaping forward with scene changes."

Although time passes and the characters age, there is no pause for makeup or any external age-defining prop.

"It's just us on stage the whole time. No discernible transition for the audience," said Matt Hellyer of Algonquin, who plays both young and old Roderick. The actors change our voices and our posture to show time has passed."

"The thing that's powerful ... is the way it treats death and birth and life and how so many things are similar throughout the generations. Even certain phrases and jokes are repeated," Hellyer said.

"It's like a circle. So families will recognize themselves: the uncle who can't hear, and the grandmothers who talk about the good old days and what they remember. Traditions that people pass down from generation to generation."

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Skipworth, who works at a chiropractor's office, has some expertise that she employs for her character.

"Over time our head tends to come forward," she said. "A head weighs about seven pounds so older people's shoulders move forward to support the head."

But posture is not the only way to depict the aging process -- other harsh realities can shape the body over time. In Skipworth's case, her character has suffered the loss of two children.

"I think about her loss and how she cried and how you tend to curl inward to protect yourself," she said. "She starts out bright and sprightly and then life goes on, and it's harder than you think it was going to be. But, you carry on."

"We always value traditions, even though times changes, clothes change, wars change things but, in our hearts we love our family, we love wonder and magic," Hellyer said. "You watch the family over time and it reminds you of your family, like that one person who always says the wrong thing or that one who remembers an old toast from his grandfather and you always do the toast at Christmas dinner."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Director Richard Pahl says playwright Thornton Wilder was trying to do a couple of different things. "He was trying to show a very realistic family drama where you would be having a conversation that seems real but, at the same time, to show the passage of generations and the effect the older generations have on the younger."

The historic venue of Al's Cafe in downtown Elgin enhances the story.

"The location is a historic building and it's the perfect place for us to perform, because old buildings have such character and make you feel that sense of purposefulness that was put in this place and how, when it was built, everyone was proud of it and that's the way the characters feel about their home," Hellyer said.

"'The Long Christmas Dinner' takes place between from about 1840 to about 1930, so the beautiful upstairs of Al's Café is sort of an ideal setting for it," said Pahl, a resident of Elgin.

The staging of the play might also make the audience feel as if they have joined the Bayard family for Christmas dinner.

"It's an immersive show, so there's a big table at the center and the audience members have smaller tables around us," said Hellyer.

When the audience says good night to the family, Pahl expects that some effects of the play might linger.

"I think this play will send us all into spending time with our families with a little bigger picture in mind and we might forgive the little stuff," he said.

Other cast members include Ann Marie Nordby of Arlington Heights, Trace Gamache of Crystal Lake, Jan Jacobs and Michael Wagman of Elgin, and Richard Isemonger of Minooka.

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"The Long Christmas Dinner"

Who: Janus Theatre Company

When: 8 p.m. Dec. 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21 and 22. Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m. Sunday shows at 7 p.m.

Where: Al's Café, 43 DuPage Court, Elgin

Cost: $15 plus dinner. Seating for dinner is two hours to 90 minutes before showtime.

For tickets: Call Al's Café at (847) 742-1180 or visit alscafe.com.

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