The story so far: Penn Comic Theatre has a holiday hit
on its hands, but the personal life of its leader,
Gwendolyn Driver, is headed in the other direction.
Four weeks into the run, one day until Christmas . . .
'Angels! I need you here! No, not you, Damon, you're a shepherd. Just the angels; the things with wings."
Gwendolyn Driver really didn't feel like herding first-graders into position for the Christmas Eve pageant at St. Patrick's Church. But she didn't have a better place to be, now, did she?
On this day, there was no performance of Penn Comic Theater's holiday revue, 2015: Was It Just a Dream? Christians had carols to sing; Jews had designs on dim sum.
So, a busman's holiday - helping Pastor Mike survive the chaos.
Gwen used to do the pageant because her daughter, Gina, adored being part of it - from gap-toothed angel to serene Madonna to assistant director. But this year, Gina was romping around Europe with her dad, Gwen's adulterous ex.
Drew . . . curses fountained in Gwen's brain. To shut them off, Gwen said a quick prayer to a God whom she sort of believed in but sometimes suspected of being just a cruel prankster:
"Birthday Boy, save me from drowning in bile tonight."
The pageant finally came to a ragged close.
Gwen pedaled her bike home to South Philly, where waited a bottle of pinot noir, a turkey pot pie (festive!), her beloved chocolate bark candy, and Master of None on Netflix, suitable for sloshed bingeing.
Inside, Gwen poured a glass of wine, held it up: "Well, Dr. Gnarly Head, should I just skip the pot pie and go straight to the chocolate? What say you?"
She decided a shower would help sort her options.
She was toweling her wet hair when she heard a noise downstairs. She crept down to Gina's second-floor room and emerged clutching a field hockey stick.
"Who's there?" she shouted from the landing. "I'm armed and the police are on their way."
"Ooooh, I'm scared."
Harris Diggs? Penn Comic's stage manager?
"What're you doing here? I'm in my robe."
"So I see. I've brought dinner: penne with sausage and a spicy marinara. Quite a showing for a Jewish boy, if I do say so myself."
"Dinner? Didn't I tell you I was flying solo tonight? And how'd you get in?"
"The key you gave me last year to feed the cats when you went to South by Southwest. Gwendolyn, if you thought I'd leave my best friend alone to face a dreadful Eve of bad wine, sugar coma, and Netflix bingeing . . . well, ya got another think coming. Get dressed, and I'll get things set up."
Back on the third floor, over the roar of the hair dryer, she detected a clatter down in the kitchen. What was Harris doing that sounded like a herd of wildebeest stampeding across the veldt?
Gwen put on the red blouse and black pants she usually wore for the big Eve bash she'd decided not to host this year; she dispensed with makeup, though.
Making the turn on the landing, she was startled to see all six feet, six inches of Van Lipscomb, Penn Comic's resident imp, ducking his way through her front door. He was carrying a crockpot.
"Oh, there's Gwen. How's Gwen?" Van launched into his best Tim Gunn. "You're not the only one who can make a mean chili, dahling. I said to myself, 'Van, just go for it.' So I went for it. Just fabulous!"
Gwen followed Van's long stride to the back of her house. Her little kitchen was as full of bustle as Bilbo Baggins' in The Hobbit. The entire Dream cast was back there, laying out cheese trays, casseroles, cutlery.
Her front door swung open again. In came Jeff Benestad, who'd starred in Dream way back in the day, who now made people laugh nightly on Broadway.
"Hey, gorgeous! Merry Christmas!" Jeff said. Hug. Air kiss.
Gwen flushed, feeling acutely her lack of makeup.
"Harris, could you come here?"
"Why are all these people here? What's going on?"
"Short answer: Because they love you. Long answer: Dan and I have been e-mailing and texting all week. No way were we going to let our friend, leader, and hero spend Christmas Eve alone, staring into a bottle of Gnarly Head. Soon, we'll have, oh, about 40 of your adoring fans here. I tried to get a Mummers band, but they were all booked."
"Harris, I don't know what to say. Wait, I do know what to say. Thank you. Thank you."
"De nada, kiddo."
After the feast, the rounds of Heads Up! - men vs. women on the iPhone game app - was the rowdiest ever. During a noisy instant around 11 o'clock, Gwen felt her cell buzz.
She yelled: "Honey, hold on, lemme go upstairs; it's too noisy."
Gwen bounded to her bedroom.
"There, now I can hear. How are you, sweetie?"
"Wow, Mom, is that a totally insane game of Heads Up! I hear?"
"Sure is. Where are you?"
"Cool. How is it?"
"OK, I guess." Was that a tremor in Gina's voice?
"What is it, sweetie? What's wrong?"
"Oh, nothing, I guess. . . . Except . . . except I just miss you so much, Mom."
Never did Gwen Driver think hearing her daughter sob would launch choirs of angels in her head. But, hey, parenting is full of surprises.
"I miss you, too, honey."
"No, Mom, I mean I really miss you, like a hole in my heart. I don't know what I was thinking, leaving you at Christmas and missing Dream. I'm such an idiot."
"No you're not. Europe is a big deal."
"It was dope for a while, but now I just miss you so much, and I feel like a rotten kid and I'm coming home tomorrow."
"You're . . . what?!"
"I told Daddy I had to go home and he said OK. He's putting me on a plane in a couple hours. Can you pick me up at the airport at 11 your time tomorrow?"
"He bought the ticket?"
"He didn't even argue. He could see how sad I was. And I was kind of bitchy to Maddy, Mom." Gina giggled.
"That's my girl."
"I'll see you tomorrow, Mom. So psyched! Hey, can we have Christmas dinner at Sang Kee?"
"All the duck you can eat."
"When's the next show?"
"Do you think Uncle Harris will let me help out backstage? Tell him I'll study the rundown all weekend. I really will."
"I think Harris might cut you a break, just this once."
"OK, Mom. Thanks. Can't wait to see you. . . . Oh, here's Dad. Want to talk to him?"
No. Yes. Well, maybe.
"Hello, Gwen. Merry Christmas."
"Hi, Drew. To you, too. You sure you're OK with this?"
"Oh, I'm sure. Our daughter is an ace at emotional speeches. Any idea where she developed that trait?"
"None at all."
"She was happy for a few days, but she's so homesick now that Europe might as well be Graterford Prison."
"Thank you. Really, thank you, Drew."
"My pleasure, G. I'd better get our offspring on that flight. Hate to think what would happen if we missed it."
"You're right. Go. Go."
Gwendolyn Driver set her iPhone down, flopped back on the bed, sighed, and made angel wings on the comforter.
Maybe the God whose birth the Christian world was celebrating was not such a cruel jokester after all. Just a giver of tests. Somehow, Gwen had managed to squeak by.
Her play was a hit, her theater company secure for another year. Her house vibrated with the sounds of true friends. Her daughter loved her again, and she'd just had an inkling of what a level rapport with her philandering ex might feel like.
Whoa . . . not there yet on that last one. Let's not get greedy for miracles.
Gina's voice, arcing across oceans to heal their little South Philly home, was miracle enough.
"Thank you, Birthday Boy," Gwen said, then slipped into a sweet, deserved sleep.
A thousand thanks to the splendid Jennifer Childs, founder of Philadelphia's real comedy theater company, 1812 Productions, for the access she granted the author during rehearsals for 1812's holiday show, This Is The Week That Is. Thanks also to the show's cast and crew, for their generosity toward an interloper. Every admirable trait of the fictional Penn Comic Theatre is based on 1812's example. Penn Comic's money troubles are strictly an invention.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
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 EndText