WATERTOWN — It’s hard to resist Christmas stories that hark back to a more innocent time, before iPhones and PlayStations. Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” with its mewing celluloid duck and parsnip wine and singing of “Good King Wenceslas,” became a classic as soon as he made his recording of it, in 1952. So, once it took shape as a 1983 film, did “A Christmas Story,” Jean Shepherd’s tale of a 9-year-old boy desperate for Santa to bring him a Red Ryder BB gun. “Holiday Memories,” which playwright Russell Vandenbroucke fashioned out of two autobiographical Truman Capote stories, “A Christmas Memory” (1956) and “The Thanksgiving Visitor” (1967), is made of the same basic stuff: fruitcakes, and Christmas trees decorated with Hershey-bar tinfoil, and gifts of “home-brewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup.” This season’s offering from New Repertory Theatre, it brings Capote, and old-fashioned holidays, to life.
In “A Christmas Memory,” the Capote figure, Buddy, is 7 and living with relatives in rural Alabama during the Depression. His only real friends are Miss Sook, a distant cousin in her 60s who’s something of a child herself, and their rat terrier, Queenie. Every Christmas, Buddy and Miss Sook go through their rituals: scavenging for pecans and purchasing the other ingredients (which include a quart of illicit whiskey) for the 31 fruitcakes they’ll send out (one to the White House, of course); making the long trek to find the perfect Christmas tree; and exchanging kites as gifts because they have no money for presents. In “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” Miss Sook invites the school bully, and Buddy’s particular tormentor, Odd Henderson, to Thanksgiving dinner, with unexpected results.
Jon Savage’s set looks like a pair of giant Cubist collages in brown wood flanking a video screen on which are projected images from Capote’s childhood town, Monroeville. There’s a bit of everything: a toboggan, a violin, a buggy wheel, canisters, banisters, empty picture frames, bottles of this and that, a suitcase tucked away, a Trumbull Electric fuse box, a plaid bathrobe hanging from a knob. Stage right, a platform with a quilt folds out for Buddy to sleep on; stage left, what looks like a bookcase opens out into a big wooden bedstead for Miss Sook.
“The Thanksgiving Visitor” comes first, and then, after a 15-minute intermission, “A Christmas Memory.” (The whole runs just under two hours.) Both stories are narrated by Marc Carver as the adult Capote, in a dark three-button suit (all three buttoned) and silver tie clip. Buddy is played not by an actual 7-year-old but by Boston University School of Theatre sophomore Michael John Ciszewski in suspenders and knickers; Miss Sook is Adrianne Krstansky in a calico dress and apron. Jesse Hinson and Elizabeth Anne Rimar portray Buddy’s estranged parents and a pair of disapproving cousins. They also handle all the remaining roles: Hinson is Odd Henderson and Haha Jones (who sells them the whiskey); Rimar plays Jumbo Finchburg (Odd’s rival) and Molly Henderson as well as Thanksgiving guests Annabel Conklin and Mary Taylor Wheelwright. Queenie is represented by offstage barking.
Under director Michael Hammond, it’s all beautifully acted — almost overacted. Carver could be a little more intimate and a little less declamatory. Krstansky is a younger, livelier Miss Sook than I expected; she emphasizes the childlike aspect of the character. Ciszewski inflects every speech and makes Buddy a bit of a brat; he too isn’t what I anticipated, but he does sound like Truman Capote. And he connects with Krstansky in a show that’s a reminder of what the holidays are all about.