The holiday drama A Servants’ Christmas has deep meaning for Ron Peluso. It was the first play Peluso directed at the History Theatre back in 1988, and it will be the last. His 27-year tenure as the theatre’s artistic director will end when the month-long run of A Servants’ Christmas closes on December 18 on the stage at 30 E. 10th St.
Likening the seasonal favorite to the Guthrie Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, Peluso said the themes of immigration and family loss are the primary reasons he has continued to produce the play year after year. Peluso’s commitment to productions that have historical value as well as current relevance has been an integral part of his success at History Theatre, according to Candace Campbell, vice president of the theatre’s board of directors.
“Ron’s vision and energy have propelled History Theatre for more than a quarter century,” said Campbell, a Merriam Park resident. “Telling ‘real stories of real people’ has been his mantra. His ability to gather talented artists—playwrights, performers, directors, composers, musicians, designers and choreographers—to make history and its lessons real on stage is unparalleled. We’re so grateful for his contributions to History Theatre and the performing arts.”
Campbell has been involved in a nationwide search for Peluso’s successor. “We’re close to selecting a new artistic director to begin early next year,” she said. The theatre’s goal is to “build on Ron’s legacy by preserving the quality and depth of our productions,” she said.
Written by Twin Cities playwright John Fenn, A Servants’ Christmas is set in December 1899. A young immigrant, Rachel Leibovich, is hired as a servant in the Summit Avenue home of a Mr. Warner. Warner recently lost his wife, and it is a difficult time for him and his two young children. Warner is also a strict Christian, and Rachel fears that if she reveals her Jewish heritage, she may be let go. So she changes her name to Monica Leary to keep her faith secret.
When Peluso joined History Theatre in 1988, A Servants’ Christmas was already part of its repertoire. “I wandered into the theatre to see a show there,” he recalled. “The director for A Servants’ Christmas had taken ill. I bumped into the artistic director, and after five minutes she hired me to direct the show. They apparently thought I didn’t wreck it too badly, as they kept hiring me over the years. So in 1995, after I had directed about seven or eight of the shows, they hired me as the artistic director.”
Over the years, Peluso and company made changes to the original script. In 2004 he and Twin Cities composer Drew Jansen added music to the show. Originally, Mrs. Warner was not present. Today, her spirit is alive and well in the production.
A story of family loss, immigration and acceptance
“No matter how old you are when you lose a parent, it’s heartbreaking,” Peluso said. “We just thought bringing the ghost of Mrs. Warner into the story would be touching. It adds something that all families deal with at the holidays, regardless of their religious background.”
Of equal importance are the lessons related to acceptance, according to Peluso.
“There has been so much anti-Semitism unleashed recently, and it’s just a horrible thing,” he said. “Half of the hate crimes in the last year and a half or so have been against Jewish people. I just felt like this is an important story for that community and for the state of Minnesota to be reminded of the need for acceptance, understanding and love.”
Jacob Hellman, the dramaturge and assistant director for A Servants’ Christmas, agreed. “As a Jewish person, I was able to provide some insight on Jewish references and the pronunciations of Hebrew-derived words,” he said. “I also kept an eye on historical accuracy, combining my knowledge with my research on turn-of-the-century Saint Paul.”
A resident of Highland Park, Hellman approached History Theatre last summer after moving to the Twin Cities. “Out of all the theatres I emailed, History Theatre was the only one that responded,” he said. “I sent (Peluso) my resume, and we met up in May or June. After learning more about the show and the History Theatre’s mission, I was pleased to get on board.”
A legacy on which to build
Producing new works highlighting Minnesota history is a legacy Peluso trusts will continue after he retires. “I’m from the Pittsburgh area,” he said, “and every time I fly somewhere and land in a city like Pittsburgh or New York or Dallas, the terminals have pictures of history. Every town has its own story of native people and immigrants and slavery and how this country came together through this complicated picture. That’s the beauty of History Theatre. We’ve always taken on stories that aren’t always pretty.”
Campbell has been involved in a nationwide search for Peluso’s successor. “We’re close to selecting a new artistic director to begin early next year,” she said. The theatre’s goal is to “build on Ron’s legacy by preserving the quality and depth of our productions,” she said. “We hope to continue to broaden our appeal to new corners of the Twin Cities and a statewide audience. We’re confident the new artistic director will thrive, given the foundation Ron Peluso had laid, and still have space for new theatrical triumphs. Our history deserves it, and our future needs it.”
For his part, Peluso plans to give the new artistic director space and any support needed. “I know how difficult it can be to follow somebody who’s been relatively successful,” he said. “I wasn’t a total disaster. History Theatre has been part of my life for over 30 years. So if they asked me to come back and do something, I’d probably be happy to do it.”
A Servants’ Christmas features actors Gary Briggle, Serena Brook, Jennifer Burleigh-Bentz, Erin Capello Kopp, Sullivan Cooper, Cathleen Fuller, Norah Long, Eric Morris and Nicola Wahl. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and 10 a.m. Tuesday, November 22. Tickets are $15-$70. For reservations, visit historytheatre.com or call 651-292-4323.
— Anne Murphy
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