Best Bets: Second Street Players stage dysfunctional ‘Nice Family Christmas’

Second Street Players rehearse for “A Nice Family Christmas” written by Phil Olson and directed by Steven Haber and Melissa Brenner. From left, Gina Shuck (Grandma), Bella Ruiz (Jill), David MacDonald (Michael), Steven Perry (Uncle Bob), Melissa Brown (Stacey), Jose’ Bernard (Carl) and Melissa Brenner (Mom). (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

Milford’s Second Street Players are going COVID-19-friendly both on and off stage with their telling of the holiday comedy, “A Nice Family Christmas.”

Starting Dec. 4 and running for two weekends, “A Nice Family Christmas” starts on Christmas Eve, when a young newspaper reporter (played by David MacDonald) on the brink of being fired has been assigned a last-chance story about a typical family Christmas — his own.

He goes home to his recently widowed mother (Melissa Brenner), his crazy uncle (Steven Perry), his eccentric grandmother (Gina Shuck), his battling siblings (José Bernard and Melissa Brown) and his brother’s neurotic spouse (Bella Ruiz), who provide no shortage of material.

One by one, the audience learns each family member’s secrets, problems and dysfunctions, and when the kin learn that he’s writing an article with some very personal family information, the fruitcake hits the fan.

Although entertaining, Ms. Brenner, who also doubles as the show’s co-director with Steven Haber, said the play was chosen for practical reasons, too.

“There’s a very small cast. And we wanted to definitely keep the numbers very low, so we could do social distancing on stage. We felt that this one in particular is interesting because we can set it in current times. So we have hand sanitizer all over the stage. We elbow bump and kind of worked around the idea of having a family celebration,” Ms. Brenner said.

“So it’s just funny because one of the lines is already in there about how you don’t cross the bubble when somebody tries to hug Grandma. That’s in the script, so that’s kind of perfect. We just kind of played that up a little bit, and we have a couple of little gimmicks and things that we do to remind people we’re still in a pandemic, but we can kind of have a little bit of fun with it.”

From left, David MacDonald (Michael), Jose’ Bernard (Carl), Melissa Brenner (Mom), Gina Shuck (Grandma) and Bella Ruiz (Jill).

Another reminder of the times in which we are living is not only will the audience be masked, but the cast will be, too. Ms. Brenner said that presents some acting challenges.

“We are having to kind of learn how to emote in other ways. I really rely on my facial expressions, so I’m learning to do things with my body and my hands and my eyes to kind of convey the different emotions. And we will have mics. It will all be hooked up to the sound system, so that it won’t sound muffled or anything. We’ll be working with that this week actually,” she said Monday.

“It’s been challenging, but it’s kind of been a nice little exercise, I think, for actors to try and find other ways to get your point across and little things that you can do with your voice and your body.”

Another concession made to the pandemic is the addition of an online recorded performance of the show at 7 p.m. Dec. 6.

Attendance for in-person shows at 7 p.m. Dec. 4, 5, 11 and 12 are capped at 25 people, and tickets are going fast. So this will be another avenue through which folks can see the show.

“We originally got the rights to have 50 views for that, but now I think we’re going to try and increase that because that seems like a very popular idea right now, especially for us in the cast who have family all over the country, and they can never come see our shows,” Ms. Brenner said.

“We live in Delaware, and my family in Atlanta couldn’t see it and my family in Texas, and Gina (Shuck)’s family is all over the place. So it’s kind of a special little treat, I think, for families to be able to see their loved ones up on stage.”

From left background, Gina Shuck (Grandma), David MacDonald (Michael) and Bella Ruiz (Jill),

Initially, this year’s Second Street holiday show was going to be “It’s a Wonderful Life.” With such a big cast, that just wasn’t possible to stage in 2020. So they switched gears in a short period of time to this smaller show.

But that’s been a challenge, too, Ms. Brenner said.

“Stephen (Haber) wanted to just pick the cast. We didn’t have auditions. Moving forward with future shows, even if we need to do Zoom auditions, that’s what we’ll do. But with this one, he didn’t feel comfortable,” Ms. Brenner said.

“We got this very fast turnaround. It’s like, OK, we decided to do it, we got the rights. We need to cast this right now. So he just kind of picked people that he has worked with before that he knew could learn their lines really fast because that’s key. We’ve had a very short rehearsal time, probably like half of what we normally have. We’re just off-book now, and next week is our tech week. We only had three weekends of set-building, so everybody’s just been pulling together to get things ready.”

From left, Jose’ Bernard (Carl), Melissa Brown (Stacey) and Steven Perry (Uncle Bob).

Although the show is called “A Nice Family Christmas,” the theater troupe warns that it probably isn’t for younger viewers or those looking for a wholesome holiday tale.

“Everybody has members of their family that go a little crazy during the holidays. So this one is about a mom, Helen, played by me, and my husband passed away three years ago. I have three adult kids. And so they’re coming home to visit with me for Christmas, and I’m also there with my mother, who’s played by Gina Shuck. She’s so funny, and she’s just completely inappropriate all the time,” Ms. Brenner said.

“Then, there are other little things that happen. A little cancer scare here and relationship issues with the kids. It’s most definitely a comedy, but if you’re taking your elderly grandparents to a feel-good, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’-type of play, then this is probably not going to be it.”

Seats are $20, with a $5 discount available to seniors, military, students and Second Street members. Tickets are all general admission. To facilitate state guidelines, ushers will seat each party to maintain social distancing. Admission to the streaming show is $15.

Tickets to the live and streaming shows are available at milford.booktix.com. Patrons who need assistance with the new ticketing can email info@secondstreetplayers.com or leave a message for the ticket manager at 228-9613.

The Second Street Players’ Riverfront Theater is at 2 Walnut St., Milford.

Theaters seek help

With the decreased attendance mandate put on indoor venues by the state recently, theaters are continuing to feel the pain financially. Two local venues are reaching out for help.

Due to the restrictions, the Milton Theatre Thanksgiving concert series, “Spectacular! Spectacular!” has been canceled. With all its fundraising events canceled this year, the theater is holding an online auction.

Some notable items are a solar installation package from Clean Energy USA, a wine refrigerator by Oak Creek Wines & Spirits, a Lewes staycation package, a salon and spa day package from Village Salon & Spa and original art by 2020 Federal Duck Stamp Contest winner Richard Clifton.

The auction currently has 73 items up for grabs with more to be added.

To donate an item, email marketing@miltontheatre.com or call 684-3038. To register and start bidding, visit 32auctions.com/miltontheatre or miltontheatre.com.

The Milton Theatre has had to revise some of its scheduled shows through the holiday season. Strict health and safety precautions are in place. All events will be capped at 50 participants.

Some of the bigger events will be split into two showings to adhere to the new capacity limits and to ensure that audience members have plenty of room for social distancing.

Another venue, The Smyrna Opera House, recently sent out an email asking for donations to help get it through some tough times.

“As you know, we have had to cancel most of our shows for 2020 or reschedule them into 2021. This has taken a major financial toll on the Opera House. Since our new fiscal year began July 1, we are around $40,000 in the red. We cannot sustain this without some help from our friends,” wrote managing director Brian C. Hill.

“The Smyrna Opera House has weathered many storms before, as it has stood on this corner for over 150 years. I am sure our community will once again help us get through these exceedingly difficult times.”

To donate, visit smyrnaoperahouse.org/donate.

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New this weekend in theaters is the animated sequel “The Croods: A New Age.”