The Homecoming: Heartwarming theatre to greet the yuletide


The Homecoming
By Earl Hamner Jr.
As adapted by Christopher Sergel
Ingersoll Theatre of Performing Arts (ITOPA)
Directed by Harold Arbuckle
Produced by Jack Peter and Lynne McSherry
Stage management by Pat Bell
December 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16
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For anyone remotely familiar with Earl Hamner Jr.’s novella The Homecoming, the adjective of choice invariably seems to be heartwarming. If one were to apply that sort of description to a kind of theatrical cuisine, it could easily be seen as comfort food for the soul.

That’s clearly what veteran director Harold Arbuckle and his enthusiastic ITOPA company – both young and old – saw. So they dutifully and diligently served up as a pre-Christmas feel-good production peopled with genuinely decent folk from the bowels of rural US struggling to keep body and soul together during the Great Depression.

Add a few oddball characters like a couple of dotty moonshine producing spinsters and a perfunctory none-too-wise out-of-season hunter, a blinding snowstorm, a sprinkling of soul-searching revelations and that prerequisite heartwarming plot that concludes with an all’s-well-that-ends-well feeling and you have The Homecoming in a proverbial nutshell.

What’s satisfying about this particular production is the easygoing and well-paced manner in which Arbuckle directs the proceedings, although at less than two hours it seems to fly at break-neck right to the concluding Merry Christmas from Clay Boy (Colin Shelton), his seven younger siblings, an earnest mom, the father who literally comes in from the cold – both figuratively and literally – and those ever present grandparents.

Shelton is engaging as Clay Boy (later to become John Boy in the Emmy-winning 1971-81 TV spinoff The Waltons); Connie Weir adds some endearing touches as the matriarch Olivia and Emma Ruddock is a bit of a scene stealer as Becky, the elder sister of the clan. Collectively the young actors/actresses offer fresh-faced and energetic performances as the youngsters eagerly awaiting the late arrival of dear old dad and of course the jolly old elf.

The Homecoming, as was the case with many of Hamner’s writings, is based on the writer’s own experiences growing up during the Dirty ‘30s. In this particular story, which began as a novella in 1961, the family waits for the magic of Christmas Eve and for the arrival of the hardworking father Clay (Montgomery Trevor Hilborne), who works 40 miles away from home. The two-act story is told from the perspective of the adult Clay Boy.

Hamner's rural childhood took place in the unincorporated community of Schuyler, Virginia, which provided the basis for the setting. His family, the community and his own life experiences – such as his fascination with writing – provided him the material for the development of his characters and storylines that relied heavily on human-interest concerns and struggles of the common folk during the economically depressed US.

ITOPA pulls it off quite nicely. The Homecoming is truly a fitting theatrical manner in which to greet the coming season and, while some of the more jaded 21st Century observers may seem the content as somewhat dated, the elements of common decency, optimism and family values are still vital to the construct and maintenance of society’s fibre.

And yes Virginia, it is indeed quite heartwarming, just like a bowl of steaming hot porridge served up on a cold winter’s night. The Homecoming stirs up *** out of four stars.

  /  4

Geoff Dale is an Oxford County theatre reviewer and freelance writer/photographer.

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