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REVIEW: St. John’s Players’ “A Christmas Spirit” delivers morbid merriment

The St. John's Players cast of  their 2018 holiday show, “A Christmas Spirit.”
The St. John's Players cast of their 2018 holiday show, “A Christmas Spirit.” - Contributed

The St. John’s Players debuted their 2018 holiday show at the Barbara Barrett Theatre Wednesday night.

Running until Saturday, “A Christmas Spirit” is not your typical holiday story.

The plotline is derived from the 1924 Italian play “La Morte in Vacanza,” soon adapted in English for Broadway in 1929 before hitting the silver screen in America in 1934, as “Death Takes A Holiday.” Six decades later, Brad Pitt played the title role in 1998’s “Meet Joe Black.”

Pitt wasn’t part of the St. John’s Players’ 2018 cast, not that he was needed – opening night sold out without the Oscar winner’s help.

We meet our protagonist, Julia Dowling (Susan Bonnell) on Christmas Eve, moments before she is surprised by an unexpected visitor – Death (Sean Collins).

When told this is “the end,” Julia sharply replies, “the end of what?”

Death’s roundabout answer does not satisfy her inquiry, so he lays it out straight – her life is set to expire, tonight.

In denial about her demise, Julia begins to pander, causing Death to slip up by mentioning “a stay of execution” – literally. Grasping onto the term, Julia convinces Death to prolong her life just for the holidays, promising him a delicious holiday meal and the chance to observe the true spirit of Christmas.

Viewing the invitation as a social experiment and a valuable learning experience, Death accepts the offer.

As one can imagine, chaos ensues. The madness begins when daughter Beth (Abra Whitney) comes home from midnight mass.
As Beth laments about the exhaustive holiday season, Julia is on edge with Christmas spirit.
“This could be my last Christmas, you know,” she says to her daughter, who sarcastically replies that one year, she will be right.

Attempting to show Death just how much she is needed by her family, Julia invites as many relatives as she can get a hold of, including her estranged daughter, Susan.

As family members arrive – Aunt Rosemary (Fiona Anderson) and Uncle Bernie (Steven Gosse), Julia’s son Paul (James LeBlanc), his girlfriend Melissa (Maddy Mant), and Father John (Justin Peddle) – Julia tries to throw the best Christmas party ever for “Jack,” Death’s adopted name, but of course, the family festivities don’t go according to plan, right from the get-go.

Death arrives late with a tagalong, “Matthew (Jody Rideout) from Mount Pearl,” a soul left in the lurch to lurk in the corner while his grim reaper guide drinks eggnog and salivates over eclairs.

A wannabe merry Christmas crew, St. John’s Players’ “The Christmas Spirit” tells a twisted story of a dysfunctional family trying to be kind to one another on the holidays, or at the very least, trying to refrain from fist fights.

Though deeply morbid, even for a dark comedy, “The Christmas Spirit” is a highly entertaining, inspiring plenty of laughs throughout the show.

While only Death claimed to be having “a splendid time,” judging by the laughter, the applause, and the standing ovation, the audience had a splendid time as well – myself included.

If the St. John’s Players’ annual Christmas show isn’t a part of your family tradition, this year is a good year to start. As this play clearly demonstrates, you never know which Christmas will be your last.

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