Sydney Newcomb & William Gardiner as Susan and Kris Kringle in an earlier production of "Miracle on 34th Street." The play runs through Dec 22 at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham MA
BY R. J. DONOVAN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham is celebrating the holiday season with “Miracle on 34th Street,” based on the classic 1947 film of the same name, starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood. Directed by Ilyse Robbins, the production runs through Dec. 22.
A white-bearded gentleman named Kris Kringle steps in at the last minute to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Good will spreads but eyebrows are raised when he claims to be the real Santa.
Kris frowns on Christmas commercialism, says his eight reindeer are his next of kin, and, in a tip of the hat to the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, claims he’s “as old as his tongue and little bit older than his teeth.”
Still, there are doubters, including Doris, the store’s event director, and her young daughter, Susan. Is it possible he’s actually Santa? Do they believe? Do we?
Kris Kringle is played by William Gardiner. Aside from performing on stages from Wheelock Family Theatre to Actor’s Shakespeare Project, he has been seen in several holiday shows in Stoneham, including “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Christmas on the Air,” and “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.”
Originally from Maryland, Bill lived in Milwaukee before winding up in Boston during high school. His initial dream was for a career in politics and he worked on his first campaign in the sixth grade. Eventually the theater bug bit when he was cast as Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” However, his route to the stage was a less than traditional one.
He married directly out of high school and had a family by the time he was 21. He and his wife soon enrolled at UMass in Amherst. He said recently, “We were a married couple in the theater department. They didn’t quite know what to do with us, God love ‘em.”
He subsequently left school to support his family, and he and his wife worked Renaissance Fairs. He also did children’s theater and landed a long-term gig at Boston’s renowned Medieval Manor.
At the age of 43 he returned to school to pursue his BFA and a masters at Boston University. He now teaches drama at Boston University Academy.
We talked about “34th Street” during a break between classes. Here’s an edited look at our chat.
Q. You’ve made a cottage industry out of holiday shows in Stoneham, haven’t you?
A. (Laughing) Certainly have. They’ve been really, really good to me. I think this is holiday show No. 10.
Q. Since you’ve done several, what makes “34th Street” so special?
A. Magic. That sense of magic, if you allow yourself to go into the story. Is Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? And what are the implications if he is? . . . It’s about love . . . It’s about being in service to other people. Being kind is defined in your actions, not in your attitude. I think that’s part of the message of the story . . . That’s why I think the story still has its appeal, and why a kid in 2019 can still appreciate and relate to Suzie in the 1940s.
Q. Tell me about Christmas when you were a boy.
A. We would get to open one present on Christmas Eve and had to wait for the rest. For many years we decorated the tree on Christmas Eve. We’d get the tree early and maybe put the lights on it, but the decorations happened on Christmas Eve . . . Then the next morning you’d get to open the stockings . . . But the gift giveaway didn’t happen until after we’d had breakfast. There was that building anticipation. You got fed little things along the way, but you didn’t get to the big stuff until after you sat down and ate as a family.
Q. Was it a challenge going back to college later in life?
A. It was great. I loved going back to school in my 40s . . . When I went to BU I had already worked professionally with probably half the department. And one of my mentors there, Jon Lipsky, said, “Make sure you come in as if you had never gone to school before or never done anything.” It was a wonderful piece of advice. I had a body of experience going into school, but I went in trying to be as wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as the next freshman. And I had a blast.
A. Is there a moment in “34th Street” that speaks to you personally?
A. Yeah, actually there is one moment that always gets me choked up. Early on, Doris has fired me and then rehired me, and I tell her that I’m so glad to be back because I was worried about Christmas and what’s happening to it. And she says, “Well, Christmas is still Christmas. And I say to her “Christmas isn’t a day. It’s a frame of mind.” I love that . . . And there’s a moment at the end of the play where my final exchange is with Doris, where for the first time she says “Merry Christmas,” and I get to say “Merry Christmas” back to her. It seems so simple, but it’s huge because she’s acknowledging to me that she’s into Christmas now as well. She understands the Christmas spirit that I’ve been trying to save, for lack of a better term.
Q. And what about your own Christmas this year? Between teaching and performing in a holiday show, you don’t have a lot of time for yourself.
A. Christmas Eve, we don’t have a show, so my wife and I will probably hit a midnight candlelight service . . . Christmas morning, a little exchange of gifts. Probably more than not, just a quiet day at home. That is a Christmas gift.
Robert J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Miracle on 34th Street,” through Dec. 22, Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street, Stoneham. 781-279-2200, greaterbostonstage.org.