A few minutes into the House Theatre's distinctive version of "The Nutcracker" — one of my favorite holiday shows — the Christmas jollity of an exuberant household is suddenly ended by a gust of frigid wind and the arrival at the door of a man in uniform, baring a folded flag and the most terrible news. At exactly the same moment as the parents and little sister, Clara, we grasp that a young Marine named Fritz has been killed in action and won't be coming home for the holidays.
"The Nutcracker," which premiered in 2007 when the House was in residence at the Steppenwolf Theatre and has, for the last two seasons, been remounted at the Chopin Theatre, has always attracted families with small children. That's no doubt due to the familiar title, although this particular "Nutcracker" has no ballet. On Sunday night, I watched a big guy in a Blackhawks shirt, who seemed to have shown up with his young daughters. It was clearly his first House production, and when that sudden sadness hit the show, he looked down and started fingering the paper ornament that House hands out instead of tickets. I saw him then look over at the clearly shocked kids, worried. He seemed to be second guessing bringing them along.
But this is the story of a journey back to Christmas, the story of a family learning how to honor the agony of their collective loss while still keeping going, if only for the benefit of Clara, the young woman of the house who deserves all that Christmas can bring. By now, I've seen a lot of little kids watch this show — which was penned by Phillip C. Klapperich and Jake Minton and features a small, live orchestra playing Kevin O'Donnell's original score — and they all seem to understand what it wants to tell them. Loss is a part of life that some of us learn very young. With love, support and acknowledgment, life can and must go on.
In some ways, the House "Nutcracker" takes risks. "Things can change," says one of the adults in the show, "from the way things are supposed to be to the way they are, much faster than we're willing to see." But the world of this show is a place where kids and adults both learn to tell the truth, take each other seriously, and take strength and solace from each other.
If you've not seen this piece, don't get the impression it's maudlin. On the contrary, it's a fun and informal piece of theater replete with falling snow, toys that come alive and a joyous sense of togetherness. The show (directed by Tommy Rapley) has become a little broader over the years, which is something for this company, whose watchword is emotional truth, must watch carefully. And in future years, it would be good to see more attention paid to the quality of the singing in what is partly a musical. But the addition this year of the unstinting David Catlin in the key role of Drosselmeyer (most of the other cast members are returning from past years) is a major new asset.
Catlin sugarcoats nothing. You know that his Drosselmeyer is on a crucial Christmas mission. He only wants to change the lives of three people, but then all the best Christmas stories are about people who set out to change just a couple of people — in Jacob Marley's case, only one — and yet end up changing far, far more in the annual telling.
The House "Nutcracker" is one of the very rare Christmas shows for adults and kids that does not pretend the world is anything other than the flawed — and, for some, dangerous — place we actually inhabit. And yet it charts a course by which one little clutch of well-meaning, feeling people can move forward, as a family, to a happy holidays. And that family I was watching were all laughing and crying together by the end.
When: Through Dec. 30
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-251-2195 and thehousetheatre.com