"Ham for the Holidays" at Sixth Street Playhouse Studio Theatre, Santa Rosa CA

“Ham for the Holidays” by Shad Willingham
Sixth Street Playhouse Studio Theatre

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photos by Eric Chazankin:

(Left Photo, left to right) Jimmy Gagarin, Kendall Carroll, Shad Willingham, Dodds Delzell, Christmas Collins, Samson Hood;

(Right Photo, left to right) Norman A. Hall, Shad Willingham

There’s certainly enough ham, and laughs, to go around in “Ham for the Holidays”, a delightfully original farce by Santa Rosa’s own Shad Willingham, presented by Sixth Street Playhouse’s Studio Theatre. In its second annual performance – an encore by popular demand - the goofy cast serves up generous helpings of broad comedy in this appealing dish that goes well with good times.

The setting: a late December morning in 1939 at small-town Georgia radio station WHAM, owned by that “old ham baker” Cab Hoxton (played to fullest cornball effect by Dodds Delzell). The station staff is in a tizzy over their special Christmas show, to be presented that very evening, with radio wunderkind and Ham for the Ages, Mr Orson Welles himself, to appear as a featured performer. But the complications are many, including a freak blizzard that may prevent the big star from showing up. Their whole program was to revolve around Welles – what to do? Local radio personality Dexter Armstrong (played by “Ham” director/writer/set designer Shad Willingham) has the answer. He brings forth his very own script, “Attack of the Space Robots from Outer Space”, which he insists they perform that night – with a few minor changes to fit the holiday at hand. His story’s plotline bears an uncanny resemblance to “War of the Worlds”. Mere coincidence?

Even with Welles as a no-show, there is still Dick McCann, played with relentless glee by Norman A. Hall. Uncle Dick is a narcoleptic Shakespearean actor (and brother of station owner Cab) ready and willing to supply whatever ham may be required between his frequent and untimely naps. Cab’s minimally talented but entirely daffy daughter Honey (Kendall Carroll) hopes to perform her tap dance routine on the show, oblivious to the fact that no one will see her. Samson Hood is wonderful as delivery man Sam Wainwright (mush, you wiener dogs, mush!), and also as a mummy-bandaged character in the second act, providing some of the most pivotal and funniest moments of the show.

Other WHAM radio talent on hand includes Christmas Collins as Violet Bicks, a stage veteran and dogged devotee of method acting, and youthful Timmy Wilkens (played by Jimmy Gagarin), who seems to be channeling Mickey Rooney. It’s not until the second act that we see these two really come into their own, with the audience laughing so hard they almost fall out of their seats. Collins in particular is brilliant, with her whirlwind of costume changes and comic mugging that draws prolonged applause.

As writer and director, actor and set designer, Shad Willingham has full creative control. His is a truly remarkable talent expressing obvious respect for this period in American culture with loving attention to detail. The small set is furnished with genuine 1930s period pieces (courtesy of Mill Street Antiques), right down to the wastebasket and file cabinets, and costumes are about as close as you can get to 1939 without raiding great-grandma’s closet. Genuine Foley equipment, providing radio sound effects, is put to good use. Following true comedic formula, Willingham sets up the audience in the first act, then gradually and skillfully cranks up the pacing to breakneck speed by the end of the second act, with punchline payoffs coming thick and fast. The cast, as ensemble players, demonstrates fine timing, so critical for a piece like this one.

“Ham for the Holidays” is a warm-hearted homage to traditional farce with its broad character sketches and pratfalls, and just the lightest tip of the hat to the screwball comedies of the 1930s. It deserves a special place at the table of Sixth Street holiday tradition, and hopefully will be seen again and again in the years to come.

When: November 26 to December 19, 2010
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Tickets: $10 to $25
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – Studio Theatre
52 West 6th Street, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com