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PLAY REVIEW: Aunt Agnes for Christmas

Aunt Agnes For Christmas features a talented cast of exclusively Niagara actors, and runs until Dec. 22 at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines. 

Contrary to the usual holiday comedies, in which people must endure their bizarre or obnoxious relatives, iconic Canadian playwright Norm Foster has created the magically mysterious Mary Poppins-like character, Aunt Agnes, who arrives unexpectedly on Dec. 23. For those who want to feel the angelic atmosphere of Christmas, it's a funny and heartwarming presentation. 

There are several matinees and evening performances for entire families to enjoy this festive event.
What makes Agnes initially curious is that no one is really sure if she's actually related to the family, which literally puts the “distance” in the term distant relative. Her explanation of why she's there doesn't jive either, as she supposedly has five children she could be visiting. While she arrives with no presents in hand, Aunt Agnes has magical powers and pearls of wisdoms with the intent of doing good deeds, which helps the Trimble family. 

She’s like the secret Santa, whose gift is teaching’s life’s lessons neatly wrapped in ribbons and bows. Not that the Trimbles are a pessimistic bunch -- far from it. However, Foster would’ve made a bigger impact with this play had the Trimbles been more realistically downtrodden and bleak. Their teenage daughter Melissa is the one exception. She wants to leave Whitehaven Bay, their quaint, small town of 15,000, because it’s boring, but it’s soon clear Aunt Agnes is intent on saving her from herself, like a super-hero in granny pants.

While the parents are working, Aunt Agnes agrees to watch the children, home for the holidays. Despite Melissa’s promise to become more responsible and cook dinner for her parents, she sneaks off to meet her boyfriend while Aunt Agnes is resting. She returns home and is confronted by Aunt Agnes, who knows everywhere she went and everything she did. Within about 10 minutes, supper magically appears already cooked in the oven and the table set. 
Anytime something magical is about to happen, a clever sound cue of jingling Christmas bells and the wreath hanging on the stage wall lit up – a great use of props. This presentation could’ve used yuletide carols in the background to help set the mood, or to introduce scenes, given that the Trimbles are a syrupy-sweet family, where this would be the norm. 

Melissa is genuinely portrayed, without over-acting, by 15-year-old Kate Peters from Niagara Falls. She's the only one who realizes Aunt Agnes is more than human.

As a character, Aunt Agnes is not all sugar-coating and has touches of self-deprecating humour, which proved popular with the audience. Aunt Agnes reserves only constructive criticism, candour and charm to change attitudes in this family hit by hard luck. Nora McLellan is subtly brilliant and charismatic as the post-menopausal Agnes, who makes up stories on the fly and gives advice without sounding too preachy. Her funny banter appears effortless.
Nerdy father George Trimble, who resembles a younger, over-exuberant Eugene Levy of Schitt’s Creek TV fame, is expecting a Christmas bonus, but instead gets canned as an R.V. salesman two days before Christmas. It’s a job he’s held for 18 years. George refuses to become despondent, and begins looking for another job on Christmas Eve. Kelly Wong portrays the ultra-optimistic dad bursting with enthusiasm, which is at times a bit too bubbly for a non-drinker.
Sally Trimble, beautifully portrayed by Cosette Derome, is the mayor of Whitehaven. She handles small-town political issues, such as someone protesting there's no pig in the nativity scene on display in the town’s square. At their outdoor skating rink, where a Christmas skate has been tradition, the skate gets cancelled due to the environment and changing weather. These are the Trimbles' troubles.  

Brian, their eight-year old son, isn’t affected by any of this. He doesn’t talk much; just imitates famous artists, depending on “the phase” he is going through, like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. The audience was amused by Hayden Neufeld, a Grade 4 student from Niagara-on-the-Lake. Portraying Brian, he suddenly appears in dance poses in various costumes, like white glittery pantsuits and giant sunglasses. It would’ve been more believable had he tried to mimic hip-hop artist Dray, Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber given the setting, time period and his age. Humourously, Foster was bang-on in creating a family shocked to find Melissa reading a book. “Why would you read a book? We buy you plenty of electronic devices.” They later discover one of the books is “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and reply facetiously: “Well, as long as it’s not controversial.” 

Much of the humour is small-town, highly relatable and typically Foster, where sayings are mixed up. He's adept at creating short punchlines and humour based on quirks of well-drawn characters. He's never outrageous, rude or offensive, which makes his plays acceptable to a wide audience that's resulted in national festivals exclusively featuring his works.

To help Melissa, Aunt Agnes makes her an apprentice. When Melissa proves herself and uses her “smart (brain) and heart” for unselfish deeds that benefit “the many,” she'll inherit Aunt Agnes’s special powers forever. While this sounds extraordinarily appealing to Melissa, Agnes eventually points out – this power is a responsibility and a mission that never ends.

Foster’s message of family, and home is where the heart is, rings true in this Christmas presentation that also includes several additional benevolent themes.