CORONADO — A standout scene in "Angel's Arms," a slight but sweet Christmas offering at Lamb's Players Theatre's new home here, involves a young girl who is prodded to play the piano.
The girl consents grudgingly. Then an angel, seen by the audience, but not by the girl or her companions, sits beside her and plays. The delight in the girl's face as she plays with a virtuosity beyond her wildest dreams is infectious. In the spirit of "A Christmas Carol" or "It's a Wonderful Life," it's a tender thanks to heavenly forces that see us through when we least expect it.
The angel theme also reflects Lamb's current fortunes. The play unveils the company's glistening, newly refurbished 348-seat theater in Coronado's 1917 Spreckels building--a far handsomer facility than the 170-seat theater in an old National City church where the company had its start back in 1976.
In 1993, it seemed crazy to launch a $2.5-million fund-raising campaign to renovate the theater in the depth of a recession. But the company, which has refused to solicit any public funding, already is more than halfway toward that goal thanks to hard work, a year of extended hits and more than a few angels.
The Paul and Ione Harter Stage, for instance, is named in recognition of a $300,000 gift from a Coronado couple. David McFadzean, a staff member of Lamb's from 1979 to 1985 and now executive producer of ABC's "Home Improvement," has given $350,000. Another donor, the Hotel del Coronado, gave $30,000 and is the site for Lamb's "An American Christmas," a Christmas feast with turn-of-the-century music, dances and stories. It continues through Dec. 29.
"The Angel's Arms," which continues through Dec. 30, is an original Christmas story by Kerry Meads, resident playwright of Lamb's, who has written all eight of the company's Christmas shows.
The plays, celebratory of the season, are traditionally more a darling of audiences than critics. They regularly sell out, and this one, now in its third outing, is no exception. There are very few seats left in this show's pre-Christmas performances. More are available for three of the post-Christmas shows.
Company member David Cochran Heath plays writer Jeffrey Scott, who has come to an old inn, "Angel's Arms," for inspiration to write a Christmas story. Once there he meets a mysterious Mrs. Boswell (Susan Hammons) who encourages him to tell her the story as he thinks it up.
As he talks, the characters literally come to life, energetic when his enthusiasm is high, fading when his inspiration fails. At one particularly witty point, a woman and a sailor try out different endings to their ill-fated romance to good comic effect.
The characterizations aren't very profound and are circumscribed by the need to fit in a number of beautifully sung Christmas carols and a Christmas message. Still, it is all done very adroitly, with some very funny lines. The message, while not new, is worth noting: There should always be room at the inn and in the heart for the stranger.
The performances are engaging, though Nate Peirson lacks energy as long-lost sailor John Shelley. Diane Addis brings dignity to Priscilla, the woman who has been looking for him for nearly 15 years. Jessica Cole (the girl on the piano) and Season Marshall give tart and funny performances as the nieces of fussy innkeeper Nicholas Cobham (David S. Cohen).
Real-life couple Paul and Vanda Eggington are amusing as upper-class twits slumming at the inn. Heath's writer expresses the cleverness of the creative process, though not the vulnerability that goes with it. Hammons brings a lovely voice and luminous presence to the whole.
While Mike Buckley's nicely detailed set does the job here, the play and a few of the actors seem a bit dwarfed by the larger stage and by the theater, which now goes seven rows back, instead of three.
Lamb's artistic director Robert Smyth explained that the company made this move because it needed to grow--not just in the size of the audience it serves, but in its creative leaps and technical challenges. That's a vision that calls out for new works done in a fresh way.
It should be worth watching Lamb's face that challenge with an ambitious 1995 season set to include: "She Loves Me," Feb. 10-March 26; "The Miracle Worker," April 28-June 4; "Tintypes," June 23-July 30, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Aug. 18-Sept. 24.
\o7 * "Angel's Arms," Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 30. $17-$24. (619) 437-0600. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.\f7
David Cochran Heath: Jeffrey Scott
Susan Hammons: April Boswell
David S. Cohen: Nicholas Cobham
Season Marshall: Rosemary MacNeil
Jessica Cole: Charlotte MacNeil
Diane Addis: Priscilla Harris
Paul Eggington: Andrew Farnsworth Hill
Vanda Eggington: Lisley Witherspoon
Michael Hickey: Matthew Joel Mountport
Nate Peirson: John Shelley
A Lamb's Players Theatre production of a play by Kerry Meads. Directed by Kerry Meads. Musical direction by Vanda Eggington. Choreography by Pamela Turner. Sets: Mike Buckley. Costumes: Margaret Neuhoff-Vida. Lights: Larry Oberman. Stage manager: Barbara Smith.