In the four seasons since Creative Cauldron’s “Christmas Cabin of Carnaween” made its debut, seeing the play has become a holiday tradition for many local theater-goers. The adapted Irish folktale isn’t among the ranks of the classic stage entertainment of the season – not “A Christmas Carol” or “The Nutcracker” – yet still area arts supporters have embraced the atypical Christmas tale. But this month, audiences must say goodbye to the struggling traveler Oona Hegarty and the fairy people who help her find a cabin of her own.
It was a tough decision to retire the play, says Producing Director Laura Connors Hull, who originally developed the production. She imagines the play, which enjoyed a successful opening last weekend, will be dearly missed by regular audiences. She doesn’t rule out a repeat performance at some point in the future. But Creative Cauldron seeks new artistic challenges, Hull explained, and thus the play will not return next December.
The play first opened in the winter of 2009. Creative Cauldron was still getting settled into its new home at ArtSpace Falls Church, having moved in that summer. It was a tale Hull had encountered earlier in her career, as an artistic director for a theater company. Hull found the story powerful and unique, one that could appeal to audiences young and old. Indeed, audience members as young as 4 are fully engrossed by the play, she says, and adults can appreciate the tale’s poignancy.
Oona, the daughter of a tinker, was abandoned as a child by her gypsy family; there were simply too many to feed in the caravan, and she was left at a cabin door. She survived in the service of others – caring for children, the sick, and the elderly, traveling from one home in need to the next and working for food and a place to stay. She dreams, but hasn’t found a home to call her own. At the depths of Ireland’s Great Famine she’s an old woman, a burden to feed for a home with a starving family. She leaves on Christmas Eve to the hillside where she’s dreamed of having a cabin, and it’s there that a bit of magical intervention helps her make that dream a reality.
While Hull didn’t have the help of Oona’s magical fairies, there is something serendipitous about the way this production first came together for her.
“It’s a synchronicity that you couldn’t even plan for,” Hull said.
She wanted to underscore the play with music, and with the help of Keith Carr and Rosemary Gano, a Celtic music duo, found classic Irish songs to accompany the play. Creative Cauldron wanted to honor the memory of Catherine Wiant, a Falls Church City teacher and civic leader who’d died earlier that year. When preparing the production, they didn’t realize Cay had a fondness for the magical beings it features; Jon, her husband, sponsored the play in his wife’s honor and continues to support it. When Scenic Designer Margie Jervis needed fieldstone to create a Carnaween hillside on the stage, Sislers Stone donated an entire pallet and became a sponsor of the play as well. The play has since received additional business support; in years past, Ireland’s Four Provinces has lent its support, and this year the 2E Consults educational firm is a sponsor.
Though it’s been a year-to-year fixture of Creative Cauldron’s schedule, Hull says each season’s production has offered something new. Scenes are revised and added to account for the talent available for that year’s production. This year, on the strength of Creative Cauldron’s Learning Theater program for young actors, six children have been cast in the play. Only two actors in the ensemble cast have been in the play all five years, though the actress who plays Oona, Katie Culligan, will be performing the role for the fourth time.
Hull is currently planning the 2013-14 season and, while the familiar “Christmas Cabin of Carnaween” won’t be part of it, audiences can expect Creative Cauldron to continue its tradition of non-traditional holiday offerings.
“We’re looking at several different works, but it’s tough because we want to find something that resonates as much as this show did, and we’d like to do something – if it’s not our original piece – that’s done a little less frequently,” Hull said. “We’re looking for, once again, an alternative Christmas show.”
“Christmas Cabin of Carnaween” runs now through Dec. 22. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. on Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Only the matinee will be performed on Dec. 22. The play will be performed at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 S. Maple Ave. Tickets are $18 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors. For more information, visit creativecauldron.org.