'The best of holiday cheer'

"Holiday Memories," an adaptation by Russell Vanderbroucke of two Truman Capote short stories, playing at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, is the absolute best of holiday cheer.

The piece is actually two one-act plays based on gentle memory pieces. "A Thanksgiving Visitor" was first published in 1967, and "A Christmas Memory" was written in 1956. Both recount events from Capote's lonely, isolated childhood, when his warring parents shipped him off to some distant cousins in rural Alabama. The six-year-old Truman — here called Buddy — finds himself in the household of Uncle B and three aging spinsters. Buddy bonds with the eldest, his cousin Sook.

Here, wreathed in Capote's eloquent language, we meet a gentle, shy and unworldly woman, filled with the wonder of seeing and doing simple, everyday things. Sook is adult enough to give Buddy guidance and childlike enough to be a companion. She awakens his imagination and his powers of observation.

Vanderbroucke's play has the older Truman as a narrator, interacting with the younger Buddy, walking through the action, and occasionally commenting on it with an older, adult eye.

This is not the pickled, jaded Truman Capote of his later years. The young Capote — Buddy — is fragile and hesitant and ripe for gentle lessons. Sook — devout but not rigid, traditional but hardly conventional — shapes Buddy into a loving and caring adult, a person that the aging Capote has lost and sorely misses.

The first act recounts Buddy's travails with the fearsome bully, Odd Henderson. Where Buddy sees someone who is "the meanest human creature in my experience," Sook sees an envious and angry child from an ostracized family. To Buddy's horror, she invites Odd Henderson to the huge family Thanksgiving dinner. To Buddy's further horror, Henderson accepts. During the dinner, Buddy has an opportunity for sweet revenge, but the lesson learned isn't quite what Buddy expected.

The second act is about Buddy and Sook's ritual preparations for Christmas. It starts with Sook's gleeful announcement of the arrival of "fruitcake weather," and meanders through the gleaning of fallen pecans from the ground of a nearby orchard, the fearful buying of liquor from a formidable bootlegger, the fashioning of fruitcakes to be sent to relatives, friends or even casual acquaintances — including President Roosevelt — and the joyful trek through wood and stream to find the "perfect" Christmas tree and maneuver it home.

The Cabaret Theatre did this play a number of years ago, to great success. Here, it is Michael J. Hume's precise direction that shapes this production and brings it far beyond what might have been the usual in heart-warming holiday fare. Hume, an accomplished actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a talented writer, never lets his actors go "cute."

John Stadelman reprises his role as the older Capote. Hume has him steadily working his way through a bottle of liquor — bourbon? — throughout the play, glass always in hand as he alternately observes or strolls or comments. Stadelman's impish smile and arch gaze here take a back seat to affection and nostalgia.

Likewise, Brandy Carson, once again playing Sook, is never a caricature. Whether imparting common sense wisdom or joyfully flying a homemade kite, Carson keeps Sook grounded.

The role of the young Buddy is to be shared between Braden Day and Braden Fastidio. On opening night, it was Braden Day's turn. Day has already appeared with OSF — he was the young Winthrop in last season's production of "The Music Man" — and he gives a skilled performance here. He is never a cloying, precocious child, but rather very real.

The myriad other male characters — the bully, the uncle, the bootlegger — are played by newcomer Jerry Lee. Cabaret veteran Tamara Marston plays various minor female characters and, along with Mark Turnbull, serves as music director.

Much of the joy in this production comes from the original music provided by guitarist Mark Turnbull. He is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and wrote the charming opera "Tales of Fannie Keenan, Better Known as Dora Hand," recently done at Oregon Stage Works. Turnbull's lovely guitar work and the beautiful vocalizing of the entire cast surround the action with a proper holiday glow.

Scenic designer Michael Halderman has taken the Cabaret's high-ceilinged stage and created a richly evocative set, part attic, part rambling old house. Similarly, Kerri Lea Robbins recreates Depression-era clothing without being too literal. Lighting design by Bridget Carlson is equally effective.

"Holiday Memories" is just the kind of entertainment you want to take visiting out-of-towners to. But, do yourself a favor — go see it even on your own.

"Holiday Memories is at the Cabaret Theatre through Dec. 31. For more information, call 488-2902.

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