The Story So Far: Penn Comic Theatre scrambles to mount a holiday production it really needs to be a hit, while the company's founder, Gwendolyn Driver, copes with parenting struggles at home.
Five days to opening night, four weeks to Christmas. . . .
'I dunno, it just seems like somewhere in the middle the funny drops out."
In the last week or so, as opening night neared, the new guy, Marshall Jefferson, had gotten less shy with his fellow cast members in Penn Comic Theatre's holiday show.
Still, full sentences from Marshall were an event - and this one got everyone's attention on the tiny stage at the Plays and Players Theatre.
Particularly because the skit in question, "Straight Outta Camden," took off on a film about black rappers - and Marshall was the cast's only African American.
Marshall peered out at the orchestra seats, where Gwen sat next to stage manager Harris Diggs.
"Why do you think that is, Marshall?" Gwen asked.
"Because we chicken out. We go all PC and explain ourselves," he replied. "We should just go for it, full tilt. That's what I think, anyway."
All eyes on Gwen. Next to her, Harris, her colleague and confidant for 15 years, murmured: "He's right, you know."
"Great thought, Marshall. Let me grind my teeth a little on it. Break!"
It was two days to preview, five to opening night.
Yet the show rundown was still shifting by the hour. Every year, Gwen swore it would be different, no fire drills. Every year, she was wrong.
After directing nine of these holiday revues, Gwen had learned to become ruthless - to kill all the little darlings, as a famous writer once put it.
Was this skit a little darling? Gwen just wasn't sure; she decided to leave it in for the previews.
"The audience will tell us": That was Gwen's comic credo. Nothing was officially funny unless it got guffaws and applause from the paid seats. And as sharp as Gwen's comic judgment had become, preview audiences surprised her every year.
Actors tiptoed down the spiral staircase to their dingy dressing rooms, to check texts, guzzle bottled water, and exchange gossip.
Gwen and Harris sat alone in the darkened auditorium.
"Sooo, my daily question . . .?"
"Early sales are great. Packed house for opening night and the first weekend. After that, the reviews will tell the tale."
In her head, Gwen heard the angry voice of her ex, before the divorce: "This dream of yours is bleeding us dry, Gwen. It's killing us. It's not worth killing us for."
She turned to Harris: "I can't lose this thing. Not now. Not with all we've put into it, you and I. I can't bear proving Drew right, I can't."
"I know, kiddo. I know. We'll get it done."
When break ended, cast and crew returned to the stage, buzzing about, exchanging comic patter.
So many careers, so many dreams, were riding on Gwen's ability to bring comic order out of chaos. She felt every ounce of that burden. She hated it. She adored it.
Was It Just a Dream? had become a local institution - but a minor one, a small holiday ritual for lawyers from Ardmore and teachers from Mount Airy.
But to Gwen, cast, and crew, it was The Show, a holy obsession.
And this year, more than most, The Show was a fight for survival. Bad luck had drained Penn Comic's revenue for the year to 10 percent under projections. Dream, always the company's king lion, would have to roar this month - or Penn Comic might be headed for its final bow.
So Gwen gave it her every waking second - well, every one not devoted to the new trouble with the other joy of her life, her 13-year-old, Gina. Gina's hormones were spurting, and Gwen's cuddling, giggling girl, her comfort amid her ex-husband's betrayals, had become a sullen cloud in their South Philly rowhouse.
They'd sparred every night since the evening Gina had come home hours late from school, delivered to Morris Street by a 17-year-old boy driving a Lexus. Gina remained unrepentant and secretive. Grounded, she sulked her way through evenings that in previous years would have been full of happy chatter about the play, the cast, and jobs she could do backstage.
That morning over breakfast, when Gwen told her daughter to heat up leftovers for dinner because tech rehearsal might run late, Gina's reply had sliced Gwen's heart: "Oh, right, I forgot. You need to be with your real baby."
Gwen's phone rang.
A familiar cell number. Ten digits that used to make her heart leap but now made her stomach curdle. She walked into the lobby and out onto a sun-dappled Delancey Street.
"Gwen. How's tech going?"
"Fine. What's up?"
"Well, I had something I wanted to run by you."
"All right, but I've got to get back in a sec."
"I'm sure you do. Look, the firm needs me to go to Europe to meet with clients, and I'm going to be there over the holidays. London, Barcelona, and Berlin."
"How nice. But I wasn't under the impression we were spending the holidays together. So?"
"I'd like to take Gina. She's never been to Europe, and she's really excited about the idea. We'd leave the day after school ends and fly back New Year's Day. It would be an unbelievable experience for her. Maddy is coming, and she could chaperone Gina when I'm working."
Gwen's mind went tilt. She sought to rebuild the ability to speak.
"Let me get this straight. You want me to let our teenage daughter leave me during Dream and Christmas so she can visit three cities on the Most Likely to Be Bombed by ISIS This Holiday Season list. With the man who broke his vows to me and the slut he did it with. Great plan, Drew Osborne. Are you out of your mind????"
"Gwen, c'mon, don't be like that."
"Like what? Realistic? Have you watched the news lately, counselor? Heard of this little thing called terrorism? And, wait - you say Gina is excited about it?"
"Over the moon."
"Which means you talked to her about it before you called me. You're unbelievable, you know that? Way to set me up: Either I'm a total patsy and lose my daughter for the holidays, or I'm the total bad guy. The hits just keep on coming with you, don't they?"
"I see you're angry, Gwen . . ."
"You always were a genius."
"And I see why. I do. I should have handled this better. Let me do this: I'll send you an itinerary so you can look it over. We can have Gina Skype you every day, so you can check on her. Think what this could mean for Gina."
"Great. Video Mom. Just the role I always pined for."
"I gotta run. Client meeting. I'll send that e-mail tonight. Look it over. We'll talk."
Gwendolyn Driver, one of Philadelphia Magazine's 50 to Watch, a creative force hailed by one writer as a "Lucille Ball for the digital age," pocketed her iPhone, sat down on the Delancey sidewalk.
She jammed her fists into her eyes, trying in vain to stem the tears.
WEDNESDAY: Part 3: Nyet on the fete!
ABOUT THIS SERIES
A Philadelphia media tradition continues: From 1997 to 2007, The Inquirer published a Christmas story by Chris Satullo and artist Tony Auth, at that time the Editorial Board editor and cartoonist, who continued it at WHYY from 2009 to 2014. This year, Satullo teams with staff artist Rob Tornoe. Online at www.philly.com/story