By John Lyle Belden
2020 seemed to ruin everything, and in “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s messing with Christmas as well.
Carol (Milicent Wright) lives for the Yuletide, and her holiday Holly Fudge (named after her daughter, as well as its festive décor) has been the Number One Blue Ribbon winner in town for eight years. Friend and neighbor Chris (Emily Ristine), a fitness trainer who now Zumba’s over Zoom, has taken an interest during the year’s shutdown in making confections herself. They look forward to Holly (Terra Mcfarland) coming home from Seattle for the holiday, and learn she is bringing her new love interest, Jordan (Jaddy Ciucci).
This play by Trista Baldwin is not just a new twist on a holiday story, but on the “coming out” play as well, as, while Carol is accepting of Holly choosing to go from a past with boyfriends to living with a woman, it throws the Gen-X mom that rather than tagging herself a lesbian, Holly opts for “queer.” As events progress, the LGBTQ issue becomes trivial as more typical intergenerational strife comes to the fore.
Carol just wishes things could be as they were, for at least one more Christmas – the fact that the noise on the street outside isn’t carolers but Black Lives Matter protesters doesn’t help.
This sophisticated comedy, in a style much like cable shows or situations in “Modern Family,” brings a lot of laughs even as tensions build to the breaking point – which occurs in a fitting, hilariously dramatic (dramatically hilarious?) fashion. Director Daniella Wheelock said this play resonates with her, especially when going from her home in Chicago to relatives in Connecticut. Mcfarland and Ciucci both commented after opening night that it reflected their own memories of holiday homecomings and letting folks know their true selves.
Mcfarland makes an impressive debut in her first professional-level role. She admitted there was some pressure in having not only a lead but also the title character, but noted she learned a lot working with theatrical veterans, especially Wright. On stage, any nerves were channeled through her apprehensive character, a woman finding herself judged against the girl her mother wanted her to be, wanting to be seen for the person she is becoming and respected for her work as a journalist.
Ciucci and Ristine both nimbly play characters who mean well yet happen to say or do the right thing to make it feel wrong for Carol. As for Wright, typically playing the rock of an ensemble, this time she masterfully portrays a soul adrift, working to get her bearings on something familiar in a very unusual time.
Everyone join in: “Fa-la-la-la-la, No Justice, No Peace!” Performances run through Dec. 23 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.