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‘Christmas Express’

A theatrical greeting card

Maggie (Leslie Wiltscheck) Hilda (Gwen Ruff) and Satch (Donovin Weber) eavesdrop on a conversation, moments after Hilda said eavesdropping was inappropriate.

The holiday spirit is pulling into State Street Theater next weekend with a production of “The Christmas Express.”

Audiences will have three chances to purchase a ticket for this wild holiday ride. Performances of “The Christmas Express” will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, December 1; 7 p.m. Saturday, December 2 and 2 p.m. Sunday, December 3.

“Christmas Express” is set in a train station in the small town of Holly a day before Christmas Eve. The town of Holly is full of eccentric characters, many of whom are struggling to be hopeful this holiday season. The train station manager Hilda Trowbridge (played by Gwen Ruff), dreams of better places but only finds tedium in her job. The upcoming holiday is a reminder of past regrets.

This begins to look even more dire when Mr. Fairfax (Richard Gurska) comes to the train station to take inventory of the train station. Hilda fears that if Mr. Fairfax does not like what he sees, the train station will be shut down leaving the town with Holly with even less to be hopeful.

However, there is one bright spot. A mysterious stranger has arrived at the station named Leo Tannenbaum (Paul Henning). Tannenbaum is an endlessly optimistic man who seems to have an almost supernatural ability to bring out the Christmas spirit in others. He is able to make a group of off-key singers, perform like the the Moreman Tabernacle Choir. A broken radio comes to life in his presence. Is it just a coincidence, or is there something magical about Tannenbaum?

Leo Tannebaum introduces himself to Donna Cummings. She is considering skipping town on the next train, but maybe Tannebaum can convince her to stay.

Director Wendy Tuttle described the play as a theatrical greeting card for the holidays. “It is a show with laughter and full of Christmas sentiment with some great speeches.”

Tuttle has directed several plays in her career. She worked on last year’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” This year’s production of “Christmas Express” is more streamlined. The play takes place in a single location. However, that made it important to make the setting work. Since the play is set in the 1950s, the production had to work to make everything match the era. Tuttle said it meant finding era-accurate signs, radios, and costumes. Even the doorknobs are those reminiscent of the fifties.

The greatest struggle was with costuming. In addition to playing Hilda, Ruff assisted with finding costumes for the actors. Ruff said she had read recently some productions are struggling to find 1940s costumes as much of it older and getting fragile. The cast was able to find the appropriate wardrobe. Ruff said there is flexibility to it. As long as we don’t have cast members walking around in hoodies or modern sneakers the audience will forgive them.

Ruff worked with several community theater productions in the area. Her favorite part of working on “The Christmas Express” is collaborating with several of her peers. This is her fourth production working with Tuttle. Ruff said the greatest challenge with this production is making the character of Hilda Trowbridge sympathetic to the audience. Her character starts the play as crabby and the person with the least Christmas cheer. The main arch of the play is seeing Trowbridge regain the Christmas spirit. Ruff said for that to work the audience needs to want to see her redeemed. She said the play has a nice message for the holidays. Tuttle said working on this production has been a delightful way to kick off the Christmas holiday. It was fun working with the actors, many of whom she had worked with before. It gave her a sense of nostalgia.

Tuttle was also delighted to see new faces in the cast. Richard Gurska, who plays Mr. Fairfax, is new to the State Street Theater Stage. At age 69, Gurska is making his community theater debut. He previously worked on plays back in high school, but he’s been away from the stage for 50 years.

Gurska said he was inspired to return to theater after seeing a TV show about a community theater putting on a production Cyrano de Bergerac.

“I thought ‘Why not?’ I have some spare time,” Gurska said. At the time, he assumed he would be working backstage. “I had no idea I would get a role,” he said. It turns out he has the exact physicality needed to play Mr. Fairfax. In his previous life, Gurska worked as an over-the-road trucker.

“I tell my old trucking buddies that nothing compares to taking stage directions,” he said. Backing up a trailer is sometimes easier than hitting the correct mark, but Gurska has found that he enjoys the process of working in community theater.

“This whole experience has been unbelievable and wonderful,” Gurska said. “The best part is the process. You take a rag-tag group of people, each doing their part. We encourage each other and improve. I love it.”

Gurska said he is willing to do more plays if there is a character he can play. He would even be willing to be the guy to pull the curtain. “I would encourage others to join community theater,” he said.

Anyone wishing to book a ticket for “The Christmas Express” available at New Ulm Hy-Vee, New Ulm Chamber of Commerce, at the Theater Box Office.

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