'Five minutes, everybody, five minutes."
Harris Diggs, stage manager for Penn Comic Theatre, strolled through the basement warren that masqueraded as a dressing area for the cast of 2015: Was It Just a Dream?
Intermission was half over. Dressing-room speakers buzzed with audience chatter.
"Another great house tonight!" Nick O'Malley said. "You killed with the new bit, Marsh. You killed!"
Marshall Jefferson took this praise with a smile.
As was her half-crazed wont, creative director Gwendolyn Driver had scrapped one sketch that, in her judgment, hadn't "landed" with audiences during the first week of performances.
She'd replaced it with a funny-painful bit featuring Marshall as Barack Obama, wandering streets at night, asking strangers what he should do for the rest of his life.
Gwen, a good five inches taller, wrapped the young actor in a hug.
She then sidled into her phone booth of a dressing room and began to transform herself into Millicent of Merion Station.
Millicent was Gwen's signature character, a seemingly prim society matron who offers devastating opinions about everyone and everything in perfect Main Line lockjaw. Born a decade before, Millicent had become so popular that sometimes she made Gwen feel like a one-hit-wonder band from the '80s. Millicent had returned to Dream this season, after a one-year absence that nearly caused a riot among Penn Comic's subscribers.
Gwen looked in the mirror. Millicent stared back, haughtily.
"So, tell me, dahling, has that ragamuffin girl of yours called you yet? No!? Such shabby manners, this generation."
Gwen's daughter, Gina, was four days into her grand tour of Europe, accompanied by her dad - Gwen's ex - and Ms. Madeleine Mulcahy, a.k.a. Maddy, the other woman behind Gwen's divorce the year before. That Maddy was also an actress - whom Gwen had picked to play the ingénue in a production a few years back - somehow made the whole sordid mess even worse.
"He didn't branch out, dazzled by some exotic beauty," Millicent-in-the-mirror told her. "He just traded you in for a younger model. Fewer wrinkles, more curves - and less talent."
Gwen had been dead-set against this European adventure, but after a week of nonstop pleading (Gina), deft guilt-tripping (Drew), and some surprising advice (from her pal Harris), she'd folded.
The previous Tuesday, Gwen had dropped Gina at PHL to hugs and promises of constant Skyping. But somehow, not one Skype session had come off yet. A few random texts (full of typos, Gwen noted) and one postcard (how retro) were the only contact she'd had with her only daughter.
"Places, people, places," Harris intoned. Millicent rose, ready once more to look down her nose at the hoi polloi.
An hour later, as Gwen and the cast took their bows, the applause and cheers were raucous and sustained.
This night continued a dazzling run for the 2015 version of Dream. Ecstatic reviews had led to packed houses and a gusher of revenue. After months of worry, it seemed certain Penn Comic would live, breathe, mug, and vamp for another year. Yet, for Gwen, it all tasted of vinegar.
She never realized how much the point of doing Dream was closeness with Gina. Gina, setting up props backstage with priestly seriousness. Gina, mooning over the latest studly actor in the troupe. Gina, during the divorce year's lonely December, stroking Gwen's cheek and saying, "Mom, you killed tonight. You really did."
Without Gina to share in it, this year's victory felt flat, empty, ochre.
Harris' beard and bald pate leaned into Gwen's dressing room.
"Tonight's tally, boss: 266, another full house. Including the mayor-elect. Saw him on my way down. Told me to tell you, 'Great job.' "
"Great, Harris, thanks."
"So, Gwen, when are you sending out the evite for the Christmas Eve feed? Tomorrow? I've gotten some texts, wondering what's up."
For years on Christmas Eve, Gwen opened her home - first the condo off Rittenhouse Square where Drew now bedded down with Maddy, then the South Philly rowhouse where Gwen moved with Gina after the divorce. She invited not just that year's Dream cast and crew, but also anyone in Philly's close-knit theater circles who had nowhere friendly to be that night. More than one actor had come to prefer a riotous Eve chez Gwen to dutiful trips home.
It was a casual feed for 20 or so, vats of Gwen's exemplary chili, hunks of DiBruno Bros.' smelliest cheeses, big bowls of guacamole, rivers of pinot and craft beer. The highlight these days was the most raucous game of Heads Up! ever played on an iPhone, women against men, competitiveness reaching a hilarious pitch in categories such as Act It Out! or On Broadway.
Gina used to look forward to it, replaying videos from the previous year's bash.
But this Christmas Eve, Gina wouldn't be in South Philly. She'd be in Berlin . . . or was it Barcelona?
"Thinking I'm not doing it this year, Harris."
"What do you mean, not doing it?"
"What's not to get? I'm. Not. Doing. The. Party. This. Year."
"Why? Because on that sacred night, my silent only child will be capering about Europe with her faithless father and the unspeakable Maddy, that's why. This does not put me in a ho-ho-hosting mood."
"C'mon, Gwen. All the more reason to spend the night with friends, friends who can't wait to toast the amazing thing you've just pulled off."
"What amazing thing? Losing my marriage, and about to lose the only wonderful thing that came out of that train wreck?"
"You know what, Driver? I've known you too long to listen to this crap. Self-pity does not look good on you. Your legs are too long, for one thing. This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard you say, and that's a category with a lot of entries, my friend."
"Spare me the theatrical tough love. It only makes this worse."
Harris stroked his bushy beard. "So what do you plan to do instead?"
"Go to church, so God can laugh at me, then get myself as swiftly as possible on the outside of a bottle of pinot and some chocolate bark. I love chocolate bark more than life itself. You may not have known that about me, despite all the time you've apparently spent cataloguing the dumb stuff I do."
"You sure about this?"
"Yes, spread the word. This year, Gwendolyn Driver will not be stuffing the guts and soothing the psyche of every lonely thespian in Philadelphia."
"Big mistake, Gwendolyn, my love."
"Get thee behind me, Satan."
THURSDAY: The Grand Finale!
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