Mention Robert Louis Stevenson in just about any context, and the alarm in my head gets so loud it actually wakes the neighbors. Not only was this Victorian-era Edinburgh native the greatest author in the history of the solar system, he had the whole religion thing figured out before he was even old enough for school. He knocked his mother Margaret to the pavement with his toddler's take on the afterlife, once breezily proclaiming that "you cannot go to heaven unless you pray."
"How do you know?" his ma asked.
"Because I've tried it," the 4-year-old replied.
How blindingly astute is that? Blindingly astute enough to earn the adult Stevenson a major reference in Spirit of Christmas Past, Lamb's Players Theatre's Festival of Christmas offering for 2005 and the latest in a more than 25-year area tradition. The allusion isn't that lengthy at all, but you'd recognize it wherever it was in the show. That's because Stevenson says in a few lines what director-writer Kerry Meads misses through the rest of the play.
Spirit of Christmas Past is uneven, impulsive and virtually devoid of a setting in time and space. All that can't be good for the credibility of well-to-do Walters family patriarch Michael (David Cochran Heath), who sullenly declares that Christmas has lost its soul-he's decided that his family won't be celebrating the holiday this year as he takes in his locale's spiritlessness of the season.
Michael knows what he's talking about. The setting, after all, is the St. Louis of 1928-the country's seventh largest city, with an auto industry second only to Detroit's. A landmark theater district. A thriving jazz scene. A deep affection for transatlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh, who worked as an airmail flyboy for a local company before he hit the big time. An equal esteem for its pro baseball club (yeah, the Cardinals choked in the Series that year, but if they hadn't, they wouldn't be the Cards, now, would they?). All that secular vigor would certainly help support Michael's melancholy indictment-except that Meads isn't having any of it. She's opted to set the scene with a few anemic references to the Kresge department store chain and contrived, time-specific phrases like "everything's jake" and "the bee's knees." Those carry a certain charm, I suppose, but they hardly inspire confidence.
The acting suffices-but again, there's just not that much character subtext to hang our hats on. Beth Walters (Sandy Campbell), for example, is the subject of speculation as to her singlehood, yet there's nothing about her to suggest she'd never land a man in good time. Crotchety ol' maid Marion (a good K.B. Mercer) is the question mark in that regard, and we never get a look at that side of her life. Surely, some allusion to her romantic past would help illustrate her edginess, especially since she's the one who spends most of the time under the mistletoe. And on and on.
The visiting Thornberry kids and their dad eventually snap Michael out of it with their holiday excitement. They're a well-scrubbed bunch with a certain musical camaraderie-their segue into a litany of seasonal tunes works watchably amid Lamb's Players' excellent tech- and set-design traditions, which are in full force and effect here.
What's not in full force is the foundation behind this piece. It lacks a critical sense of due diligence, a fault aptly illustrated in Michael's citation of Stevenson's "A Christmas Prayer."
"[May] the Christmas evening," it reads in part, "bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven."
That's truly lovely and admirable, except for one minor detail. For all his friendliness toward Christian philosophy, Stevenson was an unflappable, card-carrying agnostic who constantly wrestled with religious questions in his personal life. And as Michael's quick nod paints only one side to Stevenson's story, so too does Spirit of Christmas Past fall well short of its potential. On the whole, the characters' affectations and shadings work alright. The rub is that the whole is nowhere near the sum of its prospective parts.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Dec. 3. Spirit of Christmas Past runs through Dec. 28 at Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. $22-$44. 619-437-0600.