It’s an old trope, but a good one: A trip home for the holidays usually serves up heaping amounts of guilt, irritation and memories we’d prefer to leave in the undiscussed past. It underscores how being related to a person doesn’t mean you have anything in common—but also that family is the root of who we are.
Reno Little Theater’s holiday production, How to Survive Your Family at Christmas, is a brand-new comedy that explores the angst of going home for the holidays—where, despite everything, your family loves you anyway.
Director Yassi Jahanmir, an assistant professor of theater at the University of Nevada, Reno, explains that the play, written by William Missouri Downs, is as-yet unpublished and only has been produced a handful of times. Set in 1975, it’s the story of the Nutts, a working-class family in Chicago. Jerry Nutt, the family patriarch (played by Jim Winkler), is the proprietor of the city’s last remaining hat shop.
“He’s maybe not your first choice for a dad,” Winkler says about his character. “He’s had some big, emotional stuff happen and isn’t really able to deal with it … so he doesn’t. And that manifests in a lot of different ways.”
His wife, Rosy (Claudia Cortez), is Edith Bunker-like in her ditziness and subservience to her husband, though beneath her clueless exterior, she’s surprisingly wise. Their daughter, Loretta (B Falk), is the apple who fell very far from her family tree. A Harvard student, Loretta hoped never to return to her blue-collar roots—particularly since her brother’s tragic death years ago—but her new, wealthy boyfriend insists on meeting her parents.
“It’s about a family coming together, with their differences and similarities, and finding forgiveness with each other,” Jahanmir explains. “They’re flawed and dysfunctional in the way every family is, and that will come to a head on Christmas Eve.”
Meanwhile, a trio of carolers forges ahead with a sort of tone-deaf jubilance, introducing scene changes and contributing plenty of comedy as they provide all the sound effects for the show.
Assistant director Erich Goldstein says this is not a naturalist play. “It isn’t exactly how things would happen in the real world. The characters are bigger than life,” he says. “And these actors are fantastic. When Yassi says, ‘I want you to try this thing, and it’s a little bit ridiculous,’ they’re totally on board with it. … they’re really willing to be bigger than life.”
Though the themes of the show are timeless, the fact that it is set in the ’70s cements the nostalgia and make story points more believable. It has other benefits, too.
“I think it captures some of the essence of American identity,” Jahanmir says. “In a lot of ways, it’s a time that’s similar to now, in the midst of civil rights discussions and a lot of upheaval, and while the play doesn’t directly touch on that, there’s a feeling of disconnect between the generations that is similar to today.”
And like all the best holiday shows, the happy ending and feel-goodness is all baked right in.
“It even snows at the end,” Jahanmir says. “There will definitely be some laughs and maybe some tears.”
Reno Little Theater’s production of How to Survive Your Family at Christmas will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Dec. 1-18, at 147 E. Pueblo St. Tickets are $28, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 775-813-8900, or visit www.renolittletheater.org.