By Will Broaddus
---- — From “The Nutcracker” to “A Christmas Carol,” there’s a long list of stories that we associate with the holidays.
While these dramas help us celebrate tradition, over time, they can start to seem old.
“We all know ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ we all know ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’” said Jennifer Webster, an assistant producer for the North Shore Players, the community theater in Danvers. “We were looking for something new and fresh to try.”
The group’s search led to “Prairie Lights,” a musical about two Jewish orphans, a brother and sister, who are relocated from New York to Nebraska in 1905.
The show, written by Chicago playwright Susan Lieberman in 2003, is based on the “orphan trains” that carried groups of abandoned children to new homes in the West at the turn of the 20th century.
“Some of the kids were not orphans, they were products of families that could not afford to take care of them,” Webster said. “A lot of children’s parents died from plagues, and nobody else could take care of them.”
In the play, the orphans are adopted by a childless, older couple — Abe and Sophie Birnbaum — who are the only Jews in their community. While the children fulfill the Birnbaums’ desire to have a family, they are also a source of conflict, because they have different attitudes about practicing their religion.
“Their dad was a rabbi; they’re devout Jews,” Webster said. “Everyone in their community was Jewish, and they’re used to being ingrained in this lifestyle.”
The Birnbaums, by contrast, feel obliged to keep their religion to themselves.
“They’ve kept their religion quiet,” Webster said. “Abe couldn’t get a loan from the bank, when they found out he wouldn’t be working on the Sabbath.”
Through this family’s struggles with religious identity, the play sends a message about tolerance and recognition.
“It’s about an appreciation of gentile and Jewish traditions in December, recognizing each other’s traditions during the holidays,” Webster said.
This part of the story is amplified by the town’s attitudes about the orphans as a group; some see the children as intruders carrying diseases, but others feel they are a positive influence.
“There’s a lot of healing for most of the characters,” Webster said. “These orphans bring light into the community.”
While the North Shore Players were searching for something new to perform this holiday season, they did stay true to some traditions of their own.
“We like stories that have some kids and some adults in it, as well,” Webster said.
That’s because, out of three plays the company stages each season, the first is always a musical with roles for performers of all ages.
That would include both generations — and all four members — of the Santorella family, including father Marc Sr., who plays Abe Birnbaum.
Santorella’s wife, Valerie, plays Miss Anders, while their children, Marc Jr. and Stephanie, were cast as Herbert Manfred and Christina Agnes, respectively.
Santorella, who works full time as a Danvers firefighter, was “born and bred” in Danvers and performed in a number of productions at the high school. He returned to theater after his children got involved in the North Shore Players, and he has appeared in several productions with them over the last two years.
“I performed with my son in ‘Cheaper By the Dozen,’ with my daughter in ‘The Bard is Back,’ and with my wife in ‘The Odd Couple,’” Santorella said. “And throughout all of these productions, my wife has been behind the scenes.
“So we’ve all, as a family, been involved in all those shows, which has been a wonderful experience.”
Santorella has even applied his love of acting and public speaking to his work as a firefighter, in which he often speaks to the public on safety issues.
By honoring the Jewish heritage, “Prairie Lights” also connects him more closely, he said, to his own Christian faith.
“It has a special meaning to me personally, he said, “which makes it that much more of a joy to do.”
If you go
What: “Prairie Lights,” presented by the North Shore Players
When: Saturday, Dec. 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 2 and Dec. 9, at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Hogan Regional Center auditorium, 6 Hathorne Circle, Danvers
Tickets: $18 adults, $15 students and seniors, available at the door
More information: www.northshoreplayers.org or 978-335-5606