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The Naked Nativity
Three Penny Theatre1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816
It’s called The Naked Nativity, but relax—it’s not a nude crèche. Instead, it’s a family’s emotional life laid bare for our perusal, and it’s every bit as funny and as uncomfortable as one might expect. The only blasphemy comes from the idea that real people might have some of the same trials detailed in scripture, and that maybe, just possibly, the “holy family” featured so prominently in the Christian versions of our midwinter celebrations had some of the same dysfunctions with which the rest of us are all too familiar.
The play, written by P. Joshua Laskey, opens on the Carpenter family (Mary, Joe, and son Jim) as they wait in a hotel room for their firstborn, the wandering Josh, to arrive for Christmas. Yes, the names have significance, but not as much as you might expect; this isn’t a retelling of the nativity story so much as it is an examination of the ways in which real-family dynamics might have shaped the myth of the “perfect” family.
For example, Mary (Deborah Shalhoub) nags her husband and shows unabashed favoritism toward her firstborn. Joe (played to cantankerous perfection by Jeff Webster) has unresolved concerns about Josh’s paternity to contend with, and he’s turned to a rather self-destructive habit as a means of claiming some control in his life. Then there’s a bit of sibling rivalry (not to mention frustration) because younger brother Jim (Justin Munoz) has been pushed into a caretaker position with his parents and the family business, while Josh (played by Laskey) has gone off looking for … something. In this case, Josh seems to be a sort of New Age, inner-peace and no-material-wealth kind of guy, which, if you think about it, probably has a lot more in common with that fellow who was supposedly born in a manger than most people realize. But Josh isn’t perfect. In fact, he’s pretty oblivious to his brother’s needs and dreams, mostly because his “calling” takes all his energy—and takes the place of his family.
That “perfect” family of the nativity isn’t supposed to have all these tensions and troubles, but most of the families we actually live in are far from perfect. In fact, most of our families no doubt have more in common with the Carpenters than with that other carpenter’s family.
As Josh, Laskey is a perfectly perfect eldest son, maintaining his calm in the face of family dysfunction, but allowing his mask to crack ever so slightly in ways that let the audience see his love and concern. Shalhoub’s Mary is a nagging wife with a heart of gold, nervously attempting to get everyone to behave. Mary’s very pious, which means that contradicting her—and her ever-present Bible—takes on the same weight as contradicting God.
The hotel-room setting lends a strange sort of realism to what must also be a parable, and for the most part—under the direction of Margaret Morneau—the show moves quite quickly. There is, however, a bit of repetitiveness about some of the dialogue that no doubt marks spots where it could stand some trimming. Still, the intensity of the performances—particularly Munoz, who turns out to be the emotional fulcrum of the play—keeps the audience engaged.
Ultimately, The Naked Nativity is less about God made flesh and more about how families work, or don’t; the real grace here is in the ability to muddle through and let our affections carry more weight than do our wounds.