Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Christmas at the Wiley Diner
Clague Playhouse
Review by Mark Horning

Also see Mark's reviews of The Lake Effect and The Art of Longing and David's review of The Diary of Anne Frank


Anne McEvoy and Colin P. McCauley
Photo Courtesy of Clague Playhouse
In the thirty odd years that Sheila Banks has operated the Wiley Diner, she has seen it all. From the passing of her husband (with whom she started the eatery) to the imprisonment of her son Ryan (for running a secret pot farm in her basement) to the gradual loss of business as regulars either moved away or died off, not much has escaped her. Now, she faces her greatest challenge in the form of The Grind, an upscale coffee shop that offers exotic brews, artesian designer sandwiches, and free Wi-Fi. While in the past she has taken everything in stride, holding out hope that things will get better, but this challenge seems the most daunting.

In Margo Haas' Christmas at the Wiley Diner, currently at Clague Playhouse, it is early December in the tiny town of Cow Creek, Pennsylvania. Sheila and her core group of steadfast friends make plans for the annual Wiley Diner Christmas Eve party. The group includes her sister Kate; Ben, who works at the feed store and is involved with Sheila's good friend Lily; and Carter, the town handyman who somehow manages to keep the Wiley kitchen humming.

Word reaches the group that Jay Byrd (owner of The Grind) has planned his Christmas/grand opening party for the same night and time, despite the pleas of Sheila's friends. It seems that all the regular Wiley customers are jumping ship to check out the new hip coffee house and even Lily has gotten a job at The Grind.

On top of this, Sheila's son Ryan has received early release for good behavior and has descended upon the town, taking advantage of his mother's cash register to fuel his drinking and cigarette habits. Ryan has lots of pricey ideas on how to improve the diner and help it regain its former clientele. The final insult is that, for the third straight year, the baby Jesus has been kidnapped from Sheila's manger scene that is on display in front of the diner.

Although the play reads like a Hallmark Hall of Fame episode from the 1970s, it packs an amazing amount of heart. There is enough intrigue to keep the audience wondering which direction the story will go.

The actors are beyond the scope of your ordinary community theater productions. Anne McEvoy carefully underplays the role of Sheila, the keeper of hope and tradition in this small town on the cusp of transition. Lisa L. Wiley as her sister Kate is the firebrand naysayer and a one-woman Greek chorus for the proceedings. Charles Hargrave is the well meaning friend and faithful beau for Lily who stands by his girl in spite of her "going over to the other side." Darrell Starnik as Carter is the secret glue that keeps Sheila's kitchen open while not asking for anything in return. He is a true friend. Kyle Adam's Ryan as full of ideas but short on initiative. Colin P. McCauley has fun with the part of Jay Byrd, with a smooth transition in the end.

Very special notice must be made of the set designed by Ron Newell, who spared no detail in constructing the interior of the diner, including the barely seen back kitchen area. It is a diner that anyone would be comfortable stopping at for a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, grits, bacon, and hash browns. The lighting by Lance Switzer is well appointed with a nice snow effect. Director Tyson Douglas Rand has coaxed an amazing amount of talent from his cast, who blend well to tell a heartwarming story.

While Christmas tales abound this time of year, Christmas at the Wiley Diner is a gentle notch above the rest. It is a story of friendship, tradition, home and hearth that is told in a non-jarring way. This is a wonderful play to share with the entire family.

The Clague Playhouse production of Christmas at the Wiley Diner will be on stage at 1371 Clague Road in Westlake, Ohio, through December 10, 2017. Tickets may be purchased online by going to www.clagueplayhouse.org or by phone by calling (440) 331-0403.

Make sure to arrive early to check out the annual Clague Playhouse Jewelry Heist, which features a huge selection of gift items and costume jewelry at amazingly low prices. Check the online calendar for times and dates that the heist is on.


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