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Sincerity triumphs over dramatic shortfall in Swift Creek Mill's "Sanders Family Christmas." 

Sweet Christmas Treats

I'm sure there are people who think critics are heartless, self-important boobs who enjoy venting their caustic spleens at the expense of noble artists. I know that's what I thought about critics before I became one.

And while my spleen has been acting up lately, I'm not without a heart, and that's why I ended up liking "Sanders Family Christmas," currently playing at the Swift Creek Mill Theatre and Restaurant. Sure, my nitpicky brain was having a fault-finding field-day, but darn it if this simple story of a God-fearing, hillbilly family of musicians making merry on Christmas Eve didn't win over my stubborn heart. And it did because this is a sweet show. Not saccharine sweet or sickly sweet, but honestly, unabashedly, unpretentiously sweet. If this loosely structured collection of fiddle tunes and Christmas Carols is a bit of a dramatic cream puff, at least it goes down easy.

"Christmas" is the sequel to one of the Mill's biggest hits, "Smoke on the Mountain," and, in many ways, it's a carbon copy of its predecessor. Anyone who saw the first show will experience an odd sense of deja vu as the same characters introduce themselves with some of the same dialogue.

Once again, Burl Sanders (Tom Width) and his wife, Vera (Julie Fulcher), have brought their gospel show to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina, where the somewhat inept Rev.Oglethorpe (Duke Lafoon) presides. It's 1941 and the family's M.O. hasn't changed: They come armed with dozens of peppy spiritual songs, an uncanny talent for quoting Scripture and one self-divulging monologue per character.

"Smoke on the Mountain" was propelled by a subtle tension between the security of the past and the seductive allure of the modern world. "Christmas" tries instead to build tension around young Dennis Sanders (Paul Deiss) and his imminent departure to fight in World War II. As a result, the new show is more melodramatic and less fun.

Luckily, three performances save this production. Providing the essence of sincerity at the heart of the show is Tamara Hubbard as June. Her monologue is the evening's true climax, and it's an unexpected, clever little gem. Lafoon exudes genuine goodness as the Rev. Oglethorpe, a character whose mourning for his recently departed mother can be both poignant and played for laughs. The actor's forthright comic style turns a silly medley of Christmas songs from around the world into a boisterous riot.

Lending some ornery edginess to the proceedings is Fulcher as the wound-too-tight Vera. Her fire-and-brimstone monologue is hilarious, complete with a vivid description of how she'd blister the hides of any misbehaving elves.

"Christmas" is the kind of show in which two characters rub noses instead of kissing and boys still go boldly off to war for God and country. While the show can seem like a bit of a throwback, perhaps it can serve as an antidote for our tainted souls in this post-Vietnam, post-Clinton era. Failing that, it is at least an entertaining way to resuscitate your holiday spirit in time for the upcoming Christmas
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