Home Again With John McGivern
Next Act Theatre presents McGiverns holiday show at the Reps Stiemke Theatre
John McGivern seems to be glowing a bit more onstage this year than he has in the past. Fresh from winning a Midwest Emmy for The Early Stories, McGivern’s charming presence fills the space of the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Theatre in another holiday show. McGivern’s Home For The Holidays is the latest in a series of holiday one-man shows presented by Next Act Theatre.
In seasons past, the Next Act series of holiday shows have been a rare opportunity to see McGivern perform in a very intimate studio theatre environment. With Next Act moving out of its cozy Off-Broadway Theatre, the latest in the series is being staged in a considerably larger space. Surprisingly, the McGivern’s distinct personality has little difficulty filling a bigger room—the casual, conversational feel of watching McGivern tell stories doesn’t diminish at all in a space substantially bigger than the late Off-Broadway space.
Classic McGivern stories of childhood holiday memories on Milwaukee’s East Side are delivered with the same tender enthusiasm local audiences have come to expect from McGivern. The most sparklingly memorable of McGivern’s childhood stories details his trip across a brief stretch of the East Side delivering Christmas Calendars along his paper route. McGivern manages to find an impressive ethnic diversity in his childhood. It almost seems idealized, but not in a cloying, Norman Rockwell way. It feels simultaneously wholesome and honest. Classic stories of a mid-to-late 20th century Milwaukee mix with more contemporary tales. As nice as the classic stories are, the more current material shows quite a bit of promise. McGivern’s ability to render the specific nuances of a given mood allow him quite a bit of emotional range. Even when he’s talking about something as mundane as setting-up a laptop for his mother, he ends up being staggeringly entertaining.
The show features a few bits culled from The Early Stories. Childhood memories of an aspiring altar boy work far better live than they did on video. McGivern’s energy level with an audience adds some emotional depth to his delivery that doesn’t have a chance to show-up on video.
The show is directed for the stage by Edward Morgan, who also designed the set. Working with a larger stage than the Off-BroadwayÂ Theatre, Morgan has the opportunity to give McGivern room to breathe. There’s a Christmas tree and a few street signs . . . but there’s also a church pew underneath stained glass iconography. A section of the stage hides a mat that allows McGivern to work with people from the audience in an actual cake walk that echoes a particularly touching story from his childhood. Morgan has worked with McGivern to develop a holiday show that balances sentimentality with strikingly well executed comedy.