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THEATER REVIEW The Holiday Radio Show: 1944
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Gabriella Bonamici, Andre Richardson Hogan II, Laura Scruggs, Rolfe Sick, Jason Paul Smith.

At: Three Cat Productions at the Berger Park Coach House, 6205 N. Sheridan Rd. Tickets: and 312-970-9840; $15-$25. Runs through: Jan. 4

In 2017, the playwrights of the Three Cat "Artists Incubator" collaborated on a holiday show replicating a live radio broadcast in 1942, replete with music of the period, messages to troops stationed overseas and tributes to the patriotic "Home Front" volunteers.

When this idea proved successful, Three Cat returned the following year with another faux-radio program, this one set in 1943, composed of newly collected material reflecting a society struggling against despair during a bleak chapter in our history. Audiences in 2019 may be comforted by hindsight regarding THAT war, but so long as families and sweethearts are still forced to spend the holidays far from loved ones, it might as well be 1944.

Our hosts for this occasion are, not surprisingly, all female—even the traditionally male-operated technical equipment is helmed by a woman, with a pianist representing the sole man in the cast. Our emcees are solo chanteuses Dorothy Johnson and Ivy Brown, this year flanked by a trio of warblers wearing non-regulation WAC uniforms ( no nylon stockings, though—there's a war on, you know ).

The evening's agenda is dominated by songs, seasonal and secular, some familiar and some—less so. For example, the song listed in the playbill as "Santa Claus Is Coming" is NOT the "Coming To Town" chestnut, but a vintage 1914 ditty heralding the end of a different war. Even standard repertoire takes on a fresh energy with jazz arrangements by music director/arranger Roy Freeman, like the "Angel" medley combining the "Hark! The Herald" and "We Have Heard on High" carols rendered with a hint of boogie-woogie tempo.

The roster also encompasses dramatic dialogues adapted from authors such as Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens—whose "Ebesneezer McScrooge" now conducts business from his office on LaSalle Street and hoards ration coupons—and African-American journalist Augustus M. Hodges' 1894 poem "The Christmas Reunion Down At Martinsville." Most stirring, however, are the letters, read over the air, reflecting the loneliness of sons, husbands and fathers stranded on military bases, of daughters, wives and mothers training as nurses or toiling in munitions factories and of children exiled to live with grandparents for the duration. Torchlit ballads like "The Man I Love" and "My Buddy" heighten the wistful melancholy of the moment.

The spartan quarters in the Berger Park Coach House, far from detracting from the play's setting, actually enhance the ambience. ( For instance, a comfy chair flanked by decorated trees at stage-side offers a cozy backdrop for bravely cheerful photographs. ) Playgoers preferring snark to sentiment are warned that director Jason Paul Smith never permits cutesy offstage sound-effects to steal focus, and that, yes, a 48-star flag will be saluted with a chorus of "America the Beautiful" but those willing to imagine an age before television and Skype set us right down amid the shrapnel will enjoy this reminder of how our country once kept the fires burning through a dark and seemingly endless winter.

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