By Oline H. Cogdill
Years ago, one of my sisters-in-law said that Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday because it was not connected to any religion and had no political nor controversy connotations.
Well, those days have certainly passed as Thanksgiving now is awash in controversy, including political incorrectness for its revision of violence toward Native Americans and their contributions, its focus on gluttony and raising the ire of vegans and vegetarians.
All these aspects are represented with wit and insight in The Thanksgiving Play, receiving a vigorous production through Dec. 10 at GableStage.
Energetically directed by Bari Newport, who has assembled a top-tiered cast, The Thanksgiving Play delivers breathless entertainment with thought-provoking text.
The Thanksgiving Play is written by Larissa FastHorse, who calls her play “a comedy within a satire.”
And it certainly is that. GableStage Resident Dramaturg Karina Batchelor stated that The Thanksgiving Play has a “particular focus on Native American erasure, the mythos of the Thanksgiving holiday, and the urgent need for increased visibility and the change in the realm of American theater as it relates to Native American creatives and storytelling.”
Yes, it is certainly all that but The Thanksgiving Play also is quite funny with a biting satire that skewers extreme wokefulness with a bit of playfulness while also making the audience uncomfortable at times. Newport, who is GableStage’s producing artistic director, and her cast keep the quick quips and banter skillfully accelerating as if each were doing stand-up comedy at an oh-so politically correct rally while adding a depth to each line.
Jeni Hacker, as Logan, Steve Anthony as Jaxton, and Tom Wahl as Caden are such earnest characters, so earnest they can set your teeth on edge. Anna Lise Jensen’s Alicia has a different agenda.
High school drama teacher Logan has garnered as many grants as possible to write and produce an original play for elementary school students about Thanksgiving. The piece must be educational and can only be 45 minutes, but Logan approaches it as if it were the second coming of Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. A rabid vegan, she’s no fan of Thanksgiving, calling it “the holiday of death.” Logan has brought in her on-the-quiet boyfriend Jaxton, who fancies himself an actor and “yoga dude,” but is more like a busker who dresses like a hippie, meditates a lot and is gift-giving challenged. Logan’s other helper is Caden, a history teacher with aspirations of being a playwright and who lives for research; tons and tons of research into the earliest Thanksgiving that he’s turned into a multitude of the most boring scripts.
Logan’s intensity and habit of taking things too far seems to be chronic.
Caden: (To Logan) And I’ve seen every show you’ve directed since you got to Jefferson High. The Iceman Cometh was made so much more relevant with fifteen-year-olds.
Logan. I appreciate that.
Caden. It didn’t deserve to be shut down.
Logan. Three hundred parents disagree.
Jaxton. For now.
The three pledge to bring the play enlightened ideas about Thanksgiving’s legacy, emphasizing Native American voices and experiences. The problem is these are three white people with not a drop of native ancestry, struggling about approaching cultural sensitivity.
To achieve that, Logan has hired actress Alicia, who pronounces it “Ah-lee-cee-a,” whose silver boots, skin-tight pants and pink makeup kit contrast with the others. Logan believes “Ah-lee-cee-a,” is a Native American based on her headshot showing her in Native American dress. Alicia is her “cultural compass,” says Logan. The truth is a little simpler—Alicia’s agent had her take headshots as six different ethnic people, which got her many roles such as Jasmine.
Jaxton: How do you even take headshots as ethnicities? What does that look like?
Alicia: Different hair, accessories. My Native American shot has me in braids and a turquoise necklace.
The collaboration turns into an absurd exercise. In trying to achieve social equality, the trio come up with the worst Thanksgiving play ever as their doggedness takes different routes, not all of them good.
The scenes are broken up with the actors singing dreadful Thanksgiving songs, often donning horrid holiday costumes.
The uniformly terrific cast, each of whom have showcased their talents in other regional productions, form a tight ensemble that illuminates FastHorse’s script. Each understands the humor and pathos. All four are fine dramatic actors who show their comedic chops in The Thanksgiving Play. Each also gets the opportunity to show what a physical actor they are.
Hacker is a manic Logan, equally worried about being correct, keeping her job and maintaining her relationship with Jaxton while keeping their “coupling” quiet. When the pressure gets to her, which is quite frequent, she retreats to the janitorial closet on which she has tacked a handwritten sign that says “Drama dept”.
Anthony’s laid-back persona creates a Jaxton whose inflated opinion of himself often rears.
Wahl’s uptight Caden is so focused on what he wants to be that he has no idea how to live in the moment.
Jensen, making her first most welcomed post-Covid return to the stage, is the epitome of a clueless person. She loves it when Logan and the others call her simplistic. She has mastered how to avoid being pulled into the political fray—just stare at the ceiling. Welcome back, Anna Lise Jensen.
Myriad kudos to scenic designer Frank J. Oliva whose detailed set terrifically resembles a typical public school combination cafeteria/auditorium—down to the out-of-order water fountain. Add a special nod to Natasha Lopes Hernandez whose set dressing and props design bring back the memories of assemblies in school auditoriums. Sean McGinley’s sound design and Tony Galaska’s lighting further set the tone. Casey Sacco’s costumes are spot-on as are specialty costumes and props by Maura Gergerich.
The Thanksgiving Play made its Broadway debut at the Hayes Theater earlier in 2023, making FastHorse the first female Native American playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. Since then, The Thanksgiving Play has been one of the most produced plays at regional theaters across the country.
GableStage audiences will be thankful for this production of The Thanksgiving Play, which is the second productlon of the theater’s 25th season.
The Thanksgiving Play runs through Dec. 10 at GableStage, in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org for tickets. Running time about 90 minutes; without intermission. Tickets range from $40 to $65. Performances are scheduled Wednesdays: 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Thursdays 8 p.m. Fridays: 8 p.m. Saturday: 2 p.m. (only on closing weekend) Saturdays: 8 p.m. Sundays: 2 p.m. A panel discussion is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 29, following the 7 p.m. performance. Streaming is available Nov. 24 through Dec. 10th.