At MRT, worlds collide in a Covid-style Christmas

Karen MacDonald and Milicent Wright in MRT’s The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge. Photo by MegPix/Meghan Moore.

LOWELL —  As the Covid-19 pandemic continues unabated, theatrical works that incorporate the pandemic have also become more common as playwrights work to become both topical and relevant.

So it’s no surprise that a world premiere of a holiday show at this point in time might look very different than it did before the pandemic.

A recent performance of Trista Baldwin’s world premiere comedy, “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” marked the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s return to live theater in its Liberty Hall home after a 20-month absence

It is December 2020 in the working-class city of Brockton, Mass., and Covid 19 protocols— cue the hand sanitizer —  are in full swing in the time just before vaccines.

 A single mom named Carol (Karen MacDonald) is putting final touches on her holiday decorations with her good friend Chris (Milicent Wright). Among those touches is a heaping helping of her world-class sweet treat, Holly Fudge, named in honor of her daughter Holly (Kristian Espiritu), a college student living in Seattle and an aspiring journalist.

Carol works hard and doesn’t ask for much, but she knows what she likes when it comes to Christmas.

She is overjoyed when she finds her daughter is coming home for the holidays but Carol runs headlong into her “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” moment when daughter Holly informs her she’ll be bringing home a good friend named Jordan (Eliza Martin Simpson) – a female.

For MacDonald, it’s a bit of déjà vu. She did “The Cake” for the Lyric Stage Company in January 2020, playing a traditional Southern baker named Della who is thrown into moral conflict when her deceased best friend’s daughter asks for a wedding cake for her same-sex marriage.

Karen MacDonald and Kristian Espiritu in MRT’s The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge. Photo by MegPix/Meghan Moore.

This time, it’s adjusting to a daughter who dated boys growing up but is now dating a woman – and not for the first time.

MacDonald’s comedic chops are without peer, here as an exasperated single mom just trying to preserve the Christmases she’s always known and, just perhaps, hold on to a hopelessly an outdated vision of her daughter. That includes Holly still being OK with Carol’s famous fudge being named after her.

Holly is caught between two worlds – the Ghost of Christmases Past that her mother is desperately trying to preserve with her fudge and snow globes  – and her new world, which includes a female partner and becoming actively involved in protests. In the background, the voices of local protesters camped outside a neighbor’s home can be heard, adding to the Christmas chaos.

Simpson’s Jordan is Jewish but not religious and OK with the Christmas vibe, but the tensions between Carol and Holly spill over into her relationship with Holly.

Worlds collide as Holly tries to explain how the word “queer” has evolved from a pejorative to a word that describes sexual and gender identities other than straight and cisgender.

Carol throws up her hands.  “The Covid. The queer. It’s just too much.”

Carol does find a good sparring partner in Wright’s Chris, who finds solace from a lackluster home life with a successful husband and even finds the courage to put her fudge up against Carol’s, which eventually will lead to an aerial fudge fight.

If Baldwin can be faulted, it is in trying too hard to stuff it all – Christmas, family dysfunction, Covid, a same-sex relationship, and a historic summer of protests – into one Christmas stocking. It led to some awkward transitions and a feeling of being pulled in all directions.

Kudos for a magnificently appointed and detailed holiday set by Tramaine Berryhill – complete with blinking lights synced with music —   that combines with David Remedios’ sound, Yao Chen’s costumes and Connie Yun’s lighting to continue the MRT’s tradition of strong production values.

MRT Artistic Director Courtney Sale, who directed this production, commissioned Baldwin’s work as part in a season of new plays, recognizing the recent dearth of new holiday works.

Baldwin herself called her piece a “queer, Covid Christmas play,” and with that designation has undoubtedly blazed a new path forward, even if in its heart this is a story about family, and the bumps and bruises we accumulate along the way while trying to understand each other.

In that context, it isn’t all that different from other holiday plays.

You may harken back to your Christmas 2020, when we were being told to stay in our homes; it might have been the strangest you ever had. I know it marked the first time in my life I celebrated the holiday without an immediate family member.

 If that’s the case with you, then “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” may seem strangely familiar.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre world premiere production of Trisha Baldwin’s “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge.” Directed by Courtney Sale.  Filmmaker Kathy Wittman. Performed live through Dec. 19; filmed version streaming Dec. 20-Jan. 4.