There are Christmas plays, and there are Christmas plays, but most examples of the genre come with the sappiness factor right up front. Not "Light Sensitive."
Jim Geoghan's play about the struggles of three New York City losers begins in a place as dark as the grime on the streets of New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood: Tom Hanratty's filthy apartment. Tom has lost his sight, his hope and any inclination to keep house.
In the new production of the play at Theatre Convivio in Ashland, Tom's place, the play's only set, is a set designer's masterpiece of squalor: a rusty old sink and cabinet, a circa 1940s Philco fridge, garbage on the floor, a bathtub full of mail Tom doesn't bother to open (posing questions not only about how the bills get paid but about personal hygiene).
What: Theatre Convivio's "Light Sensitive"
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 19-21 and 26-28; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 21-22 and 28-29
Where: Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland
Tickets: $10; available at Music Coop or at the door
Call: 541-708-1817 or see www.theatreconvivio.com
The set is the outward expression of Tom's interior world. Blinded eight years ago when trying to give his macho pal Lou's motorcycle a jump-start while drunk, Tom (Michael Meyer) has given up on life.
Lou (David King-Gabriel), who works as a bartender at the seedy Terminal Bar, is still around. Driven by guilt, he comes by to swill liquor from dirty glasses with Tom, read to him, fold his money.
On the day before Christmas Eve, Lou gives Tom bad news. He's moving to Vermont with his new girlfriend, a lawyer.
"Vermont is not a place you move to," Tom thunders. "It's a place you move away from."
Enter Edna, a mildly disabled, less-than-beautiful do-gooder from the Lighthouse for the Blind. Lou has fixed Tom up with Edna as a helper/replacement pal. Edna (Lia Dugal) is determined to help Tom, her first client, whether he wants it or not, but she comes with self-image issues of her own.
OK. So it's the holidays, and we have a lonely he and a lonely she. So how long until somebody's heart starts to crack open? And how long before we need to reach for the hankies?
A while, actually. The largely comic first act is dominated by the struggle of wills between Tom and Edna. He wants her out. She's not going. At first it's verbal. When he menaces her with a broom, she pulls the old "I have a gun" trick by sticking him with the top end of a beer bottle.
As the zingers fly back and forth, we have a feeling we've seen all this before. It's a battle of the sexes of the old screwball comedies, darkened and updated and complete with issues of social class (Tom is from poverty, Edna from a comfortable family).
The tension in a romance comes from the impediments to love the playwright dreams up. Geoghan has set the bar high. Tom and Edna have real problems.
They make a bet on whose father was the most terrible. Tom's father was a violent, abusive drunk. But Edna wins with an anecdote about her father killing a raccoon on a family vacation. It's what she claims the man did after shooting the animal that's the clincher.
In the second act, everything has reversed. Romance seems to be blooming for Tom and Edna, the apartment has been cleaned up, and a disillusioned Lou returns from his Vermont misadventure with sad/funny stories about his erstwhile girlfriend's dysfunctional family.
Will Lou, whose view of women is cynical and aggressively politically incorrect, screw things up for Tom and Edna? Will he tell his pal that the spinsterish Edna doesn't look like much of a bargain? Will Edna keep her belief that when we fall in love the heart takes a picture?
Direction by Convivio Artistic Director Richard Heller is warmly sympathetic without becoming cloying. Tom is one of the beset characterizations I've seen from Meyer, who's been acting around the valley for a long time. King-Gabriel is spot-on as the macho Lou. The men speak in credible versions of New York English. Gugal's Edna is a little fuzzy early on but comes into focus moving forward.
Geoghan is a notably smooth writer, and problems such as joblessness, isolation, depression and heavy drinking are glossed over with a comic patina as we move toward the play's resolution, which aims to show us that, A) all you need is love, and B) beauty isn't everything.
Some people may have a problem with an action that figures in a climactic scene. It involves a stereotypical male prejudice and is designed to show us that a bit of untruthfulness can be an act of kindness, but to say more would be to play the spoiler.
Like the darkly comic 2003 Christmas movie "Bad Santa," "Light Sensitive" plays funnier than it sounds. And despite the bleakness of their situations, these wounded characters struggle bravely, and there's something inherently uplifting about that.
Does Geoghan let them off easily? In the end, probably, but we're cheering them on, so we're willing to let Geoghan off, too. "Light Sensitive" is a strong play that deserves an audience.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.