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Charlotte’s Off-Broadway Revisits the Trump Era in ‘Thanksgiving: 2016’

The cast of Thanksgiving: 2016
The cast of ‘Thanksgiving: 2016’ (from left): Tom Ollis, Michelle Strom, Matthew Howie and Donna Norcross. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte’s Off-Broadway)

Anyone who reads advice columns or cruises social media at this time of year will have an accurate inkling of what Thanksgiving: 2016 might be about. Millions of Turkey Day hosts are wondering how they will keep opposing family factions from shouting their lungs out or coming to blows while the sharp cutlery is still on the table.

Playwright Elaine Alexander smartly calculates that the situation is prime fuel for a dining room comedy — or tragedy — but the world premiere Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production at VAPA also revealed that the NC native had a tough time deciding which way to go.

Ground Zero for the annual onset of hosting panic was clearly in November 2016 when Hillary Rodham Clinton resoundingly won the popular vote for the US presidency while Donald Jefferson Trump won the Electoral College — and the White House — just as resoundingly. Liberals, Democrats, and rational folk are still in shock. Yet as Alexander deftly reminds us along the way, they are all blissfully unaware of the betrayals of good sense, rationality, rule of law and democracy to come.

As the West family up in the liberal Northeast prepares to host young Eric’s girlfriend, riding up the highway from Alabama, the aroma of crisis already fills the suburban kitchen. Papa Harry, after diligently knocking on hundreds of doors crusading for Clinton, was hospitalized — either for a nervous breakdown or a heart attack — immediately after watching CNN declare Florida for Trump. The chief Turkey Day watchword from Harry’s physician is for wife and son to prevent the shell-shocked Hillary soldier from indulging his CNN addiction.

Taking to drink in the wake of her husband’s collapse, either out of worry or guilt, Renee has pretty much abandoned any serious intent to impress Brittany, the Southern belle she’ll be meeting for the first time. So it has fallen to young Eric to try to cook a luscious feast for his beloved, even though Mom hasn’t properly shopped for the occasion. Some improvising and substitution will need to be done. Worse, frozen will occasionally need to stand in for fresh.

Worst of all, Brittany voted for Trump, so Eric desperately hopes to keep talk of politics — the subject Dad is obsessed with and still agonizing over — away from the holiday dinner table. Harry has enough difficulty digesting that his son would date a girl from Alabama. Nor does Dad have enough self-awareness to realize that, in a reflexive action stemming from his years in community theatre, he mocks every Southern drawl he comes in contact with.

Finding out she’s a Trump voter could send him over the edge. Getting Dad to refrain from talking politics promises to be even tougher than steering him away from CNN. Finessing how to keep Brittany off the touchy subject is a bridge Eric hasn’t crossed yet.

Donna Norcross in ‘Thanksgiving: 2016.’ (Photo courtesy of Charlotte’s Off-Broadway)

As a director, Alexander casts father and son perfectly. Matthew Howie is a master of timorous anxiety as Eric. He can craft crescendos of panic and befuddlement while doing a hilariously awful job of warding off disaster with a shit-eating smile. Nor could we improve much on Tom Ollis as Harry.

Since his 1997 debut at Theatre Charlotte in Arsenic and Old Lace, Ollis has grown into the most visible volcano on the Metrolina theatre landscape. Whether as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, Sweeney Todd, or Titus Andronicus, Ollis is peerless at seething, suspecting, and erupting into towering, raving rages.

Since Harry is also a trial lawyer recently dismissed from his law firm because of his excessive zeal, Ollis can feast on numerous opportunities to cross-examine everyone in sight, bullying and browbeating every witness. Alexander’s women don’t get nearly as much scenery to chew, but her casting choices are nearly as impeccable.

Donna Norcross seemed to be battling opening night jitters early in Act 1 as Renee, but as Mom yielded to a multitude of wine refills, Norcross also relaxed, becoming quite powerful in the Act 2 denouement. Quite ripe for stereotyping, Michelle Strom as Renee entered the West home like a sudden ray of sunshine, without the preamble of a knock or a doorbell chime, her drawl as wide as the Mississippi. No, Dad could not restrain himself, nor could I blame him.

As you can imagine, the setup of Thanksgiving: 2016 is almost pure comedy — until the Trumper truth finally comes out, as an announcement rather than a shy confession, with the proud flourish of a cheerleader’s somersault. Looking from Strom to Ollis as we reach intermission, we can only wonder whether Dad will clutch his head or his heart.

But what can come afterwards from our host, our hostess, and from poor Eric? Admirably enough, Alexander lets her characters carry her along across Act 2. But her impulse to bludgeon Harry with more secrets and uncomfortable turns this comedy upside-down.

The host family in ‘Thanksgiving: 2016.’ (Photo courtesy of Charlotte’s Off-Broadway)

We transition, not very gradually, from a Neil Simon comedy of futile secret keeping to an impactful series of revelations that conjures up Sophocles’ Oedipus, Strindberg’s The Father, or Albee’s Virginia Woolf. Those revelations are topped off by a  couple of increasingly jaw-dropping ideological rebukes to Harry’s smug liberalism that might shake you up a bit.

We seem to fall over a cliff here, with too little before intermission to prepare us for the high drama afterward. By the time the cast is taking their bows, Renee has radically transformed from a borderline bimbo into a pieta resembling Steinbeck’s Rose of Sharon on the final pages of The Grapes of Wrath.

Instead of dumping us off a high cliff, I’d advise Alexander to lay down more track that would guide us around the mountain: a sudden dramatic swerve — not too sudden — would be more satisfying than this swan dive.

A visit to VAPA for Thanksgiving: 2016 is still worth it, delivering hearty laughs and a gasp or two. By all means, dig in!

Editor’s note: The final weekend of Thanksgiving: 2016 was postponed due to illness in the cast and has been rescheduled to Jan. 4-7, 2024

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