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Review: The Christmas Letter Writer's Club

Playcrafters’ current offering in its Barn Owl series, The Christmas Letter Writer’s Club, is a new work from local – and by local I mean Cambridge, Illinois – author and playwright, Tom Akers and is his first play written for an adult audience. I’m not saying men can’t appreciate the subject matter, but if this were a film, it would be tagged as a “chick flick” - highly relatable to women, but men – not so much. That it is written by a man is impressive and Akers’ insight into female relationships is even more remarkable.

The plot revolves around college besties, Jenn, Katie, Allison, and Lisa who reunite three years post grad at Jenn’s family cabin in Wisconsin. At that reunion, they bemoan the difficulty of keeping in touch with family and friends via Christmas newsletters and decide to meet up annually over the long Columbus Day weekend to write their letters with each other’s – and a few bottles of wine – help. Over the course of about 20 years, beginning in the mid-1990’s, the women’s bond deepens as they communally navigate life’s tragedies: Lisa’s divorce, the death of Allison’s son, and Jenn’s ultimately losing battle with cancer and its poignant aftermath.

Narrating portions of the story is Zach Zelnio as Jenn’s devoted husband, Michael, who wears this role as comfortably and genuinely as your favorite pair of jeans. Matching his authenticity is Sara Laufer as Jenn, the anchor of the group, whose subtlety of expression made her all the more believable. Elle Winchester lands a strong performance as the rebel Lisa and equally strong as Lisa’s “got your back” good girl, Allison, is Jaclyn Marta.

I was disappointed that the somewhat off-beat character of Katie – my personal favorite – wasn’t featured more than she was and Mara Earp’s portrayal of Katie left me wanting to know more about her.

Playcrafters seems to have shanghaied the entire Duling family into this show’s crew. Madison takes the helm as director, Bruce as producer and sound designer, and Vickie as set dresser. It’s the set that somewhat challenges believe-ability. I expect a cabin in backwoods Wisconsin dating back to the 1950’s, per the script, to be much more rustic than the cozy living room presented to us and an unnecessary lamp effected sight lines.

A draw back was the overall pacing of the show. Scene changes were s-l-o-w partially due to a pokey crew and possibly somewhat due to costume changes. Both could be easily improved.

Ideally, you should gather up your posse of gal pals and see this show together. There is a special bond between women to whom my sister-in-law refers as “2:00 a.m. friends.” In other words, friends who are so special, and so dear, that you can call upon them any time night or day. This story of the non-judgmental camaraderie and resilience of women will have you engulfed in grateful bear hugs all the way home.

The Christmas Letter Writing Club continues at Playcrafters Barn Theater, 4950 - 35th Avenue, in Moline Friday and Saturday, August 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, August 28 at 3:00 p.m.

I’m Chris Hicks...break a leg.