Photo by Marcy Stamper

The Bradley family talks about how to enliven the annual holiday pageant. Everyone ends up being surprised by what gives the pageant new meaning.

By Marcy Stamper

The name says it all — “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” captures the many moods of the holiday season in a simultaneously offbeat and heartwarming dramatic comedy. The show is The Merc Playhouse’s fully staged winter production, with seven performances from Friday (Dec. 8) through Dec. 17.

The play follows the diligent efforts of a small church to stage its annual Christmas pageant, even though the domineering “church lady” who typically directs it (played by Carolanne Steinebach) is out of commission with a broken leg.

Enter mother Grace Bradley, played by Katie Leuthauser, who takes on the responsibility of inspiring the church’s regular Sunday school students to bring the pageant to life. She also tries to motivate six unruly kids from a family who join the production after finding out that attending Sunday school means they can indulge in desserts and candies afterwards, said director Jane Orme.

The two girls and four boys from the Herdman family are considered from “the wrong side of town,” said Orme. Although they know nothing about the pageant, they land many of the key parts, sometimes bullying and pushing the other cast members around.

But even some of the Sunday school kids see participation in the pageant as obligatory, and they find the Herdmans intimidating, said Orme.

All kinds of things go wrong with the pageant, including a fire at the church. But in the end, the traditional Christmas story is rejuvenated by the creativity and energy that the misunderstood family, and the church regulars, bring to the pageant.

“It’s really funny, and it shows you can’t judge somebody without knowing who they are,” said Orme. “They all end up embracing the Christmas spirit.”

The pageant is a little different from a traditional holiday show, said Orme. It’s got a choir that performs classic Christmas carols and lots of funny lines. “It ends up being sweet and heartwarming,” she said.

“It’s a good message about acceptance and not judging people,” she said. “You can laugh and get to the heart of what the message is.”

Many people are familiar with the story of the “Best Christmas Pageant,” which is also a book for young readers that was made into a movie in the 1980s.

The Merc’s production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is also ambitious, with 30 actors — seven adults and 23 kids, ages 8 to 14. The all-local cast includes experienced actors — on The Merc stage and beyond — as well as some people who’ve never acted before.

Audiences will recognize several faculty members from the local schools on stage, including fourth-grade teacher Don Haley as the minister, director of teaching and learning Anne Andersen as one of the four church ladies, and fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Duguay (who reprises her role as a church lady from a previous Merc production of the Christmas pageant). Leuthauser teaches science at Liberty Bell High School.

The young actors include Gunner Smith, Lucy Tobiska-Doran, Peter Kominak, Sawyer DeSalvo, and Landry and Violet Chrastina as the Herdman kids; Willow Frady, Caden Bebout, Malloch DeSalvo and Kenny Hussey as the prim-and-proper Sunday-school kids; and Bella Curtis as the narrator.

In addition, Maureen Smith, who has decades of experience designing and creating costumes for school productions and professional theater in California, has fashioned stunning costumes for the show.

There are seven performances of the Best Christmas Pageant at the Merc Playhouse in Twisp. Shows are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Dec. 8 through 17. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. There is an additional pay-what-you-can show on Thursday, Dec. 17, at 7:30 p.m. (different start time that night only).

Reserved seats (in the first three rows) for the other shows are $18 for adults, and $7 for youths 18 and under. General admission is $16 for adults and $5 for youths. Tickets are available online at www.mercplayhouse.org and at the door.