By Cullen Humphreys

In the town of Holly, the population is dwindling, the spirits are fading and the local train station is all but barren. “Ain’t nothin’ ‘round here but dust” quips the snarky station manager Hilda played by Judy Harper.

Life in the station stagnates, everything falls into disrepair; the radio stops working, Hilda has no desire to put up holiday décor, despite it being days before Christmas. The station’s porter, Satch (Kevin Profitt) meanders around, his mind ever working on fantastical and goofy stories, attempts to keep the place lively. Soon arrive two travelers, equally mysterious. The first is the secretive and charismatic Leo Tannenbaum, played by Mike Olk; the second is Mr. Fairfax. Howard Deal’s character of Fairfax is cold and distant, wearing a sharply cut suit as he snoops around. Police? FBI? IRS auditor? Or worse yet, a representative from the rail yard company? To keep it short from now on, Tannenbaum’s presence brightens up the station and the rest Holly but something still seems amiss with him. The quickly arriving Christmas Express certainly brings in the traditional wonder and magic of the holiday season with a powerful message of hope.

Director Jessica Asiala said she had a hard time dealing with the timing and pacing of the lines. She needn’t have worried; there’s not a single joke that isn’t hit with perfect rhythm. Her direction guides the talented actors and actresses through the show in a fluid, natural way. The cast themselves have a noticeable familiarity among each other, as you’d expect from a small town. This isn’t surprising considering the fact that there are two married couples and a brother and sister on stage together. Returning to the stage after 25 years is Mary Margaret Fletcher as the wonderfully nosy reporter, Penelope. Linda Rebney plays Myrna, the head of the carolers, with a passive aggressive holiday sentiment. Pam Barnes and Tim Barnes as Donna and Jerry, respectively, a newlywed couple having a unique little spat. Last but not least, newcomer to the stage is Susan Profitt as Deborah who provides a unique and fun twist to the show.

The train station, designed by Suzie Reid and constructed by Gary Reid, becomes a character of it’s own as the show progresses. Little quirks of the broken items, the entrances and exits to various areas and transition from bleak to holiday cheer adds a wonderful element to the show. Dot Rogoza’s costume design shines and holds true to the styles of the 1950s. Lights were set by Brian Zook. Stage managed by Naseem Mazloom.

Hope is a theme repeated throughout the show, and a message that director Jessica Asiala hopes stays with people. “Part of what spoke to me is that there is hope out there—it all depends on where you look,” she says. “There’s hope in everything.” The Christmas Express is more than a play on a stage, Pit and Balcony is taking this message to heart by spreading hope—in cooperation with the United States Marine Corps, there will be a Toys for Tots donation center in the lobby, along with a Marine in full dress uniform. There is also a raffle and cocoa will be available.

The Christmas Express runs December 2nd through 4th and December 9th through 11th. Tickets are available by calling the box office, online or in person. Contact Pit and Balcony Community Theatre at 989.754.6587.

© Cullen Humphreys, 2011