Christmas at Sweet Apple: Celestine saves Christmas 

Theatre in the Square offers a worthy successor to Turned Funny

I don't envy Erin Considine, who plays the late Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley in Christmas at Sweet Apple for Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage. Considine not only faces the challenge of playing a beloved, deceased real person, but follows in the footsteps of Linda Stephens, who won a Suzi Award for portraying Sibley in Theatre in the Square's Turned Funny, the hit predecessor.

Fortunately, Considine doesn't seem to be acting in anyone's shadow, offering a subtly different take on Sibley. Turned Funny, Phillip DePoy's adaptation of Sibley's memoir, presented the reporter's entire life from the perspective of her in old age, which may have informed Stephens' folksy take on the role. In the world premiere of Christmas at Sweet Apple, Considine portrays Sibley as equally likable, but more businesslike and formidable, as you'd expect a successful female journalist would be in the mid-20th-century South. Considine offers a warm but strong personality, as confident while interviewing convicts as she is while describing the proper way to decorate Christmas trees.

Considine's unsinkable turn sells Christmas at Sweet Apple's only real contrivance. While Turned Funny recounted her life story, the new play provides a grab bag of holiday anecdotes based primarily on Sibley's books Christmas in Georgia and Especially at Christmas. The framing plot finds Sibley trying to bring Christmas cheer to Beth (Abby Parker), a penniless mother abandoned by her husband at the holidays. Sibley comes across as a busybody obsessed with orchestrating the perfect "Christmas moment," but Considine makes the woman's drive part of her charm.

The play's stories, recounted by Sibley, Beth and other friends (played by Allen O'Reilly, Rob Lawhon and the hilarious Holly Stevenson), take place in Atlanta and the rural South of the 1950s and earlier. Featuring apple ladies, dancing bulls, Union soldiers and a place called Snout Island, the tales present refreshingly modest epiphanies, not choir-of-angels miracles. Bits of traditional mountain songs and Christmas carols provide the anecdotes' connective tissue without impeding the show's momentum. Directed by Jay Freer, Christmas at Sweet Apple may be the most low-key holiday show of the season, but therein lines its appeal. Rather than pour yuletide joy down your throat like eggnog, the play lets you find a little Christmas spirit inside yourself.

Christmas at Sweet Apple. Through Dec. 30. $7-$35. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369. www.theatreinthesquare.com.

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