Last Christmas is a gift

By Robin Waples

Theatre Algoma presents Last Christmas at Algoma University's Shingwauk Auditorium.

"Oh yeah, and I have cancer. Merry Christmas everyone."

And so ends Jake's annual Christmas letter sent out to family and friends.

The Second World War veteran is dying, he's grieving the loss of his wife, and he's distressed that his two grown daughters and 18-year-old grandson have estranged relationships. The daughters are hot-messes and the grandson has flunked out of school.

The four are getting together for the holiday, bringing with them conflicts, jealousies, resentments, secrets and lies.

It's going to be a wonderful Christmas.

Last Christmas is not your traditional, feel-good holiday fare wrapped up in fancy red ribbon. It's a realistic look at the complex relationships in an unhappy family at a stressful time of year.

It's painful to watch, but oh so worth it. This production, being staged by Theatre Algoma -and written by Sault native Neil Fleming -is an absolute gem. Director Loretta Durat has brought together cast members that fully understand these characters and are talented enough to execute that understanding into a deeply emotional experience for the audience. This is an honest and heartfelt play with a transcending authenticity that feels very special. There are tears and a well-deserved standing ovation at play's end.

Durat has ensured that every awkward silence, every sarcastic barb, and every resentment-filled nuance is captured. Even the rhythm of the play emits an emotion of its own, and the director deserves credit for making sure the feelings behind the moments are not lost.

A forced sentiment from the cast is not to be found.

Bob Cooper hangs his heart on his sleeve as he attempts to mend his broken family -and put some fun in dysfunction -before he dies. Cooper's authenticity is palpable and it anchors the piece from beginning to end.

Sandra Forsell, as daughter Paula, is fierce and fabulous as the cold, controlling bitch who climbs the corporate ladder while neglecting the raising of her son Riley. She also has no time for sister Debbie. The latter, played with likeability by Kara Colynuck, works in service of others, but isolates herself from relationships.

Jarrett Mills, as Riley, is rebellious and angry, but still open to finding meaning in the life ahead. His scenes with grandpa Jake are rewarding and hopeful.

Fleming was commissioned to pen the piece by Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary and it was first workshopped in 2011. Theatre Algoma's presentation is the Ontario premiere.

Last Christmas -which now ranks as a personal favourite -continues tonight through Saturday and Dec. 12 to 14 in the Shingwauk Auditorium of Algoma University. Tickets, which are $20 for adults and $10 for students, are available at the Community Theatre Box Office in the Station Mall and at the door. All performances are at 8 p.m