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    Andrew Guzman, left, is Clay-Boy and Bob Beck is Clay in the Carnegie Players production of “The Homecoming,” playing through Sunday at the Cleburne Conference Center. COURTESY PHOTO/CARNEGIE PLAYERS

‘The Homecoming’ is a great Christmas gift

There’s a surprise waiting for you at “The Homecoming,” the Carnegie Players winter production that, unfortunately, ends this weekend at the 299-seat Cleburne Performance Center inside the Cleburne Conference Center.

Unexpectedly during this heartwarming drama, Jay Cornils and Andrew Guzman sing “O Holy Night,” which caught me totally off-guard but is a stroke of directorial genius by longtime director Kate Hicks and assistant director Jonathan Nash.

The surprise is two-fold: this is not a musical, it’s a drama; second, who knew Jay Cornils could sing? He can. Well enough to hold his own with Guzman, whose unusual yet mellow voice is one of the best ever on the Carnegie Players or Plaza Theatre Company stages. They sound great together.

The veteran and versatile Cornils has already proven time and again his skills behind the curtain (director of “The Foreigner,” “Miracle on 34th Street” among others) and on stage in comedies (“The Sunshine Boys,” “Harvey”) and dramas (“To Kill A Mockingbird” and numerous others), and now we learn he can sing, too.

The song is a great addition to this story of a Great Depression-era, dirt poor family in Virginia featured in a 1971 TV movie that became the long-running TV series called “The Waltons,” but were named the Spencers in the original book by Earl Hamner Jr, and maintain that surname in this production.

It’s Christmas Eve 1933, and mom Olivia (Becki Esch), oldest son Clay-Boy (Guzman), and younger siblings Matt (Asher Renfroe), Becky (Jaden Foster), Mark (Baylor Cain), Shirley (Gracie Renfroe), Luke (David Frye), John (Taylor Matthew Schoen) and Patti Cake (Nadya Leduc) anxiously await the return home of husband/father Clay (Bob Beck), who has traveled by foot and bus more than 50 miles away to Waynesboro to find a job.

Kudos to the child actors for knowing their lines and for Hicks and Nash persuading them to speak slowly and clearly. They deliver parts without the usual high-pitched, rapid-fire staccato sometimes associated with nervous children on stage.

A snow storm hits the area and when dad hasn’t arrived home by nightfall, Olivia is worried and sends Clay-Boy to find him.

That only adds to the tension that was already building between Clay-Boy and his dad when dad discovers that, instead of homework on his school tablets, Clay-Boy has been writing stories and dreams of being a writer. Old-fashioned dad wants Clay-Boy to work on the farm, marry and have a family.

Meanwhile, a couple of the older children suffer through lessons about charity, family and that barn-yard animals don’t really talk.

As Clay-Boy searches for dad, he drops by a store operated by Ike Godsy, played by veteran TV newsman Bud Gillett, who is quickly becoming a regular on Carnegie and Plaza stages.

Clay-Boy’s search also takes him to the home of spinster sisters Miss Emma (Barbara Rose) and Miss Etta (Erin Ivey) who produce a popular and potent liquid refreshment and also offer Clay-Boy a ride home in a one-horse open sleigh.

Clay-Boy also acts as narrator, filling our imagination with the scenes that cannot be depicted on stage, and explaining his frustration with his dad’s apparent inability to understand Clay-Boy’s desire and dream to write.

Two other entertaining roles are played by Trevin McLaughlin as Birdshot, a quirky family friend, and Shannon Maddox as Charlie, another family friend who brings illegally acquired (fresh but dead) turkeys for the dinner table just as food and money is running out.

As expected, dad arrives home just in time to wrestle a bag of presents from a stranger he discovers on the roof, his explanation for having gifts for everyone, especially one for Clay-Boy that reveals dad to be a very special person after all.

The curtain closes, the lights go out and the family members say good night to each other.

There are only four days remaining to see this. Don’t let this opportunity get away. See it.

From a story by Christopher Sergel, based on a book by Earl Hamner Jr, with set design and construction by Mik Brown, costumes by Becki Esch  and lights by Alan Meadows and Michelle Holcomb, “The Homecoming” is presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 9 at the Performing Arts Center at the Cleburne Conference Center, 1501 W. Henderson St., in Cleburne.
Tickets — $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students and $8 for children age 10 and under — are on sale online at www.carnegieplayers.org, or via email at cleburnecarnegie@gmail.com, or at the door.

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