Janet Essenpreis as June Sanders and Paul Kerr as Burl Sanders in 
Sanders Family Christmas. Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.

Sanders Family Christmas
Written by Connie Ray
Conceived by Alan Bailey
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents copyright © 2011 Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
Sanders Family Christmas is the second part of a trilogy of shows:  part one is Smoke on the Mountain, and part three is Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. But don’t worry if you haven’t seen the other two. There is not enough story in this chapter to sustain one show, much less a trilogy.
The setting is a Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve in 1941. We are meant to believe we are watching these assorted old-timey characters performing their Christmas pageant for their congregation, and on that level it succeeds. The performers make the audience another character in the piece and it’s easy to imagine that we are seeing the real thing. So, your enjoyment will depend on whether this is your cup of tea or not.
What little storyline there is involves the Sanders family of performers putting together one more show before their son goes off to World War II. And while that’s not a very uplifting subject for a Christmas show, it isn’t even mentioned again after the first act so we are left to wonder, what was the point?
Performances are all top-notch, however, and we’ve come to expect no less from the Derby Dinner Playhouse. Especially nice turns are provided by Paul Kerr and Rita Thomas as the Mom and Pop of the family; Kerr in particular does a nice job with a very moving (and lengthy) monologue recounting a WWI memory, and Thomas gets most of the show’s few laughs giving a unique spin on a stereotypical character.
The standout performance, however, would have to be Cary Wiger as Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe, an obvious Mama’s boy still grieving the loss of his mother while trying to simultaneously present his Christmas pageant and woo the lady of his dreams (a cute character played by Janet Essenpreis).
The cast performs mostly gospel music with a few Christmas songs thrown in for good measure, and it’s during these moments that the cast really gets to shine. I personally think I would rather have seen this cast simply perform the songs as a concert than the way they are presented here, with Connie Ray’s rather thin script trying to tie them together. Director Bekki Jo Schneider does her best with the material, but at the Tuesday night preview performance I attended, I had a sense that even DDP’s regular audience were getting restless in between the musical numbers.
All in all, it was an entertaining evening if not among the playhouse’s best offerings; and for anyone looking for Holiday offering with a more faith-oriented spin, this might be just the ticket.
Featuring Janet Essenpreis, Scott Bradley, Bill Hanna, Paul Kerr, Jim Schweickart, Rita Thomas, Tina Jo Wallace and Cary Wiger.
Sanders Family Christmas

November 15-December 31, 2011
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281
Toll Free – 877.898.857