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Theater Review: “Charitable Sisterhood Christmas Spectacular” Stages an Uneven Return to the Basement Pageant 

click to enlarge Debra Wagoner (seated) as Lorraine, Jan Guarino as Tina and Catherine Shaffner as Beatrice in Virginia Rep’s “The Charitable Sisterhood Christmas Spectacular.”

Jay Paul

Debra Wagoner (seated) as Lorraine, Jan Guarino as Tina and Catherine Shaffner as Beatrice in Virginia Rep’s “The Charitable Sisterhood Christmas Spectacular.”

The second act of Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Charitable Sisterhood Christmas Spectacular” opens with one of the most delightfully simple and hilarious bits of stagecraft this season. Three members of the fictitious Second Trinity Victory Church circa 1977 deliver a medley of Christmas carols, trying to project an air of joy and fellowship while subtly battling against each other and an overeager offstage piano player.

The scene succeeds because of the sublime comic skills of the women — Debra Wagoner, who plays wisecracking mom-of-nine Lorraine, Jan Guarino as Yankee interloper Tina and Catherine Shaffner as overbearing Beatrice, or Bea. These accomplished stage vets not only play off each other with perfect timing but also sing beautifully.

The scene is the highlight of an otherwise uneven affair written by local playwright Bo Wilson in a return to the church-basement ladies genre he explored two years ago with “The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church.” The production gets many things right under Joe Pabst’s direction, but some significant holes and stumbles hamper the proceedings.

One positive addition to the sisterhood is the character of Lucille Orton, an intolerant booster of the more conservative First Salvation Church, beautifully portrayed by Jody Smith Strickler. Lucille falls under suspicion when the Baby Jesus disappears from the sisterhood’s nativity scene, prompting Bea to steal the rival church’s Joseph figurine.

Full of starch and propriety, Lucille also has recently suffered the loss of her husband, a humanizing detail that later lends depth to an otherwise classically schmaltzy feel-good ending.

The nativity hijinks are the reason behind the production subtitle, “A Mystery Play,” and serve as an excuse to bring back a “Sisterhood” alum, private investigator Janet Murchison (Donna Marie Miller). Even with an intermittent New Jersey accent, Miller does a fine job but also exemplifies one of the play’s downfalls.

Janet is defined by little more than a couple of adjectives, and her arrival reinforces that this is true for everyone except for Lucille. Pabst gets some charming performances from the cast, but with little more than “Yankee” or “wears tight dresses” to define the characters, it’s hard to care much about what happens to them.

The staging of Second Victory’s Christmas pageant makes up the show’s second act, with appropriate holiday flourishes by costume designer Marcia Miller Hailey. The action alternates between onstage performances and backstage shenanigans but the transitions don’t quite work on designer Terrie Powers’ simple church basement set. Virginia Rep has a history of pulling off such logistics quite well, as seen recently in “Gypsy” and “Dreamgirls.”

But without backlighting that indicates a backstage perspective (lighting designer B.J. Wilkinson does a fine job otherwise) or the appearance of anyone but the five main characters onstage, the spectacular comes off as distinctly understaffed.

That said, there are very good moments in the second act in addition to the opener. The “Room at the Inn” sketch uses the strengths of each cast member well and a trailer park holiday tale generates plenty of laughs. Pabst stages the “mysterious surprise” finale with winning cinematic flair, getting key assists from Wilkinson’s lights and Miller, whose character steps nicely to the fore.

Without the anchor of the Lucille plotline, “Charitable Sisterhood” is so airy it would float away. Instead, it’s frothy-enough fun to keep Hanover Tavern audiences happy for the holidays. S

“The Charitable Sisterhood Christmas Spectacular” runs at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Hanover Tavern through Jan. 1. Go to va-rep.org for tickets and information.

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