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Worst kids in world deliver 'best pageant ever'

COURTESY PHOTO: THEATRE IN THE GROVE - Grace Bradley (Gratia Minor) tries to gain control as the Herdmans turn a pageant rehearsal into chaos. Left to right are cast members Gwendolyn Woods, Andrew Inman, Anna Adams, Nathan White, Sam Ruder, Alyssa Kittle, Sean Fisk, Matthew Lowther, Sam Dennis, Charlee Clement, Quinten VanDyke, Pamelajean Myers, Isabel Minor, Irene VanDyke and Maya Luevane.While almost every community theater group endeavors to present a holiday-themed play in December, it can be tough to cast these shows.

Show biz, even at the local level, can be very demanding; actors are often reluctant to invest so much time in a production while spouses, parents, and children wait at home. In her director’s notes, Jessica Reed acknowledges the importance of this time, saying “Christmas has always meant spending time with family a way that we don’t usually get to the rest of the year.”

Theatre in the Grove, a mainstay of both community theatre and children’s theatre in Washington County, addresses this problem neatly in its holiday production of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" by delivering a nice amalgam of the two — call it “family theater” — that incorporates entire families into the production process.

A quick look at the credits in the program says it all: the Dawes family, the Dennis family, the Fisk family, Brad and Christina Inman, the Harrelson and Lesh family, the Ross family, the Ruder family — all are recognized for their work both on stage and behind the scenes bringing the show to its audience.

Author Barbara Robinson has written a show that is funny, touching and short enough to hold the attention span of even the youngest audience member: it’s time for the annual Christmas pageant, and the regular director, the imperious Mrs. Armstrong, is out of commission.

The other parents gang up on fellow mom Grace Bradley, who reluctantly agrees to direct the show. Her husband Bob, who is totally disinterested, even more reluctantly agrees to help out by ensuring that the shepherds and baby angels appear on cue and in costume.

The show threatens to fall apart when the Herdmans, who are the literally the worst kids in the world, demand lead roles as Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and the Angel of the Lord. The other town children don’t dare oppose this group of cigar-smoking, lying, shoplifting, assaultive thugs, who envision the Wise Men as spies, Herod in need of a thorough beating and the Angel as a dark avenger.

With no local mom willing to allow her baby to appear onstage in the grasp of these miscreants, they are forced to use a (much suffering) doll as the Baby Jesus. Of course, it’s Christmas, and a nice dose of holiday magic transforms the Herdmans and helps the whole town to see the story in a beautiful new light — hence, it is truly the best pageant ever.

Casting a show with a large group of children often means that the adults are kind of an afterthought — brought in because they are tall enough, old enough and can learn their lines while policing the antics of a stage full of kids. However, this show is something of an exception. Gratia Minor playing Grace brings a healthy combination of cynicism, resignation, and competitiveness to a key role, and Andy Dawes playing Bob displays fine timing and comic sensibility. Another adult standout is Aurea Taylor as Mrs. McCarthy, a priggish younger version of the domineering Mrs. Armstrong.

The kids, of course, are all impossibly winning and Dawes’ interaction with the littlest angel — I suspect she is his daughter Pru — is just spectacular — well worth the price of admission.

The show is, as mentioned, very short. It would be nice to ratchet down the pace at a key moment — when Imogene starts crying — to draw more attention to this pivotal scene. It would also be helpful for Althea Harrelson — amazingly cute though she is in her portrayal of Gladys — to slow down her delivery and focus on really articulating the lines — she has some of the best moments in the show and should really work it.

Now that Theatre in the Grove has a tight new roof to keep the rain out, there is no excuse for all families in the Forest Grove vicinity to miss this entertaining holiday show — and to reflect on what it really means to be a refugee seeking shelter in troubled times.

"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Ave., Forest Grove, with regular performances at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, 12, 18, 19 and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 and 20.