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Southern comfort
BU conjures Truman Capote’s Memories
Holiday Memories
Adapted by Russell Vandenbroucke from Truman Capote’s "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory." Directed by Jim Petosa. Set by Kenichi Takahashi. Costumes by Randi Fowler. Lighting by Matthew Novotny. Sound by Matt Griffin. With William Gardiner, Chris Conner, Bob Braswell, Helen-Jean Arthur, and Emily Strange. Presented by Boston University Professional Theatre Initiative, in association with the Huntington Theatre Company, at Studio 210 of the Boston University Theatre through December 21.

Holiday Memories is an odd but engaging holiday play based on two short stories by the odd but engaging author Truman Capote, who died in 1984, shortly before his 60th birthday. "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory" were written long after he had left behind his 1930s childhood in the Alabama town of Monroeville to make his way among the glitterati of New York.

The author of works as disparate as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, Capote in this pair of holiday stories considers his eccentric youth with nostalgia tinged with regret for simple things lost. The bill is being presented by the Boston University Professional Theatre Initiative, a new consortium of BU’s School of Theatre Arts and such entities as the Huntington Theatre Company, the National Players Theatre Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center that’s meant to combine the work of professionals and students. Jim Petosa, who helms the staging, is head of both the Olney and BU’s School of Theatre Arts.

Capote had what you could consider a deprived childhood, having been dumped by his divorced parents on three maiden cousins and their bachelor brother in an isolated country town. In writing that sometimes veers toward bathos, the author recalls in a "stream of stars" those years when his best friends were Aunt Sook, the youngest of the female cousins, and a rat terrier named Queenie. Sook belongs to the sisterhood of emotionally fragile Southern women that includes Laura of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Frankie in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding: girls who hover at the edge of a world that has no place for them. Lonely, sensitive, and destined for spinsterhood in a society where women are expected to marry, they will occupy spare rooms off the kitchens of relatives to earn their keep as genteel domestics.

At 60-plus years, Aunt Sook is an adult in chronological age but childlike in intelligence and experience. In Equity actress Helen-Jean Arthur’s portrayal, her cheery activities form only a partial cover for the dark corners of the psyche where she takes shelter from careless cruelties. Sook is a caregiver, finding pleasure is doing for others, particularly Buddy, as young Truman is called. She hoards up 10 cents each week to send him to the movies but has never seen a film herself; neither has she traveled farther than five miles from home. She’s filled with a homespun wisdom, however, spouting homilies derived from nature and observations about family and neighbors. Like a Depression-era Martha Stewart, she’s resolutely innovative at transforming ordinary objects, for example saving tinfoil from Hershey bars to fold into Christmas angels for the tree. It’s to Arthur’s credit that the sweetness of the character she creates trumps the sentimentality of Capote’s portrait and keeps the whiff of preciousness at bay.

The role of Truman is shared by two actors: a narrator recalling times past and the child who lives the tale. William Gardiner delivers the recollections in a gentle, unpretentious manner. Chris Conner, a sophomore acting major at BU, gets the awkwardness of the child Buddy’s body right but makes the mistake of pretending to be a seven-year-old. Bob Braswell and Emily Strange, aided by the clever device of their appearing as silhouettes behind a rear scrim, play all the other parts. Queenie’s presence — an important point on the warm triangle of dog, Sook, and Buddy — is skillfully mimed by Arthur and Conner.

Holiday Memories unfolds in two acts, one for each story, on a stripped-down but evocative set that combines the yard outside the house with the homy artifacts of the kitchen. It’s designed by Kenichi Takahashi, a first-year MFA scene-design student from Japan. And in the end the play is all about the relationship of Aunt Sook and Buddy, best friends and outsiders united against family members who provide for them but withhold emotional nourishment. A year after the incidents recalled here, Capote was sent off to a succession of military schools and dreary summer camps. "As long as you remember me, we’ll always be together," Sook tells Buddy. The stories dramatized in Holiday Memories make it clear that Truman didn’t forget.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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