| Stage |

The Sanders Family Christmas: Where the Audience Gets to Play the Congregation of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church

The set-up:

One of A.D. Players' most popular shows returns for the Christmas season, and it's easy to see why. The execution:

Part sacred and part comically profane, Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's musical testament to faith and family warms like hot chocolate and soothes like comfy woolies. The show's message is sincere and terribly heart-felt. The ensemble plays it to perfection, as the show veers between goofy comedy and misty-eyed sentiment, with musical numbers (gospel hymns, traditional carols, novelty songs) interspersed with "witnessing" monologues, some tender, some funny. The play possesses such intrinsic charm and sweetness that you get caught up in this evangelical world without quite knowing how it happened.

The audience plays the congregation of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, awaiting the arrival of the renowned country gospel group, the Sanders Family Singers. Pastor Oglethorpe (Kevin Dean) is atwitter at the visit, although still recovering from his blessed mother's recent death. He wears his heart on his sleeve, as well as pride.

Burl (Gerry Poland) is the patriarch, a big savvy country boy. His wife Vera (Shondra Marie) means to "blister" anyone's hide if they disrespect her, or the Lord. Twins Dennis (Robert Price) and Denise (Sarah Cooksey) are on the verge of adulthood, with Dennis soon off to war.

The play is set on Christmas Eve, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The relevance with today is quickly brought home by Burl's wrenching account of his time in the French trenches during WW I. Gung-ho Denise wants to do her part, too, but her intemperate desires to be a soldier's "port in a storm" by joining the USO is quickly shot down.

Rejoining the family is Uncle Stanley (Craig Griffin), an ex-con who's had a quick brush of fame by singing in a Hollywood western with Gene Autry. He's paid his debt, done his time, and found grace in the family's forgiveness. Unassuming, plain June (Katharine Hatcher) is the "non-musical" Sanders, and although no one in the congregation is deaf, June "signs" the family's songs. Hatcher gives one of the drollest performances so far this season, using a dead-pan expression that would do Buster Keaton proud. Her timing is nothing short of brilliant as she supplies the heart to Family.

As personal stories are told, the family interacts with deft and precise characterization. Music defines them, but the binding tie is family.

The verdict:

You don't have to be Christian, or even particularly religious, to enjoy this good-old-time, feel-good comedy. Directed with a mighty sure touch by Joey Watkins, the joys of the Christmas holiday are apparent. No matter what you believe, there's faith in that.

Sweet as churned cream butter and just as smooth, Sanders Family Christmas runs through December 31 at A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. Purchase tickets online at adplayers.org or call 713-526-2721. $34-$43.

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