It’s 1932 in the United States of America. Herbert Hoover is president and the Great Depression’s in full swing, with unemployment at a staggering 33 percent. The Dow Jones nosedives to 41.22. Almost a million farms are repossessed, and Midwestern farmers unable to pay mortgages rebel by burning crops. The first woman to be elected to the US Senate, Arkansan Hattie W. Caraway, is sworn into office. Seventeen thousand World War I veterans camp out with their families in a Hooverville tent city in Washington, DC, demanding military bonuses owed them; President Hoover orders the forcible eviction of this “Bonus Army” and two veterans die. Across the Atlantic, a toothbrush-mustachioed orator is angrily advocating nationalism and stirring fears in Germany. In November, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wins the presidential election in a landslide.
This same year, a little-known Missouri columnist named Laura Ingalls Wilder — distantly related to FDR through the extended Delano family tree — publishes “Little House in the Big Woods,” a chronicle of her 1870s childhood on the Midwestern frontier. An attempt to recoup life savings lost in the 1929 stock market crash, Wilder’s humble book is successful enough that she goes on to write eight “Little House” volumes eventually regarded as classics of children’s literature. The most famous, “Little House on the Prairie,” inspires a 1970s TV show still in perpetual reruns.
“Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus,” a memorable chapter from “Little House on the Prairie,” is at the heart of James DeVita’s musical play “Little House Christmas,” currently in production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Why does Wilder’s saga about prairie life with no money or electricity still resonate with cynical, multicultural, 21st-century audiences?
“There’s so much controversy about this, but I think it represents the true idea of American exceptionalism,” says director Alison Eliel Kalmus. “That can be fraught with political response, but I’m talking about the down-to-earth fundamental values of people with grit, perseverance and determination who believed that the work they did was absolutely important to character and self-growth, and took such joy in it. They believed that work was its own reward, whether they were pressing cheese or drying apples or digging a new well or barn-raising. I think that’s the core message. It’s about people and communities that work together, no matter what.
“There was a lot of victimization of Native Americans then; that was absolutely a part of life. But this show symbolizes the other side: people with hope and hard work, and a sense of who they were and how important community was. They had disease; they were borderline malnourished at times. If there was not a good season of farming, they had to get by. They had predation by wolves. But through it all they had incredible optimism and hope. No matter what hit them, they kept on going. They were just happy to have food on the table, good company, a fiddle playing and a harmonica, and a good rousing square dance.”
Per Wilder’s annotated autobiography, “Pioneer Girl,” daily reality was harsher and at times more violent than the G-rated stories immortalized in her “Little House” books. For her, writing stories about her life was another way of creating something out of nearly nothing in order to survive. Much of the enduring appeal of “Little House” can be credited to that self-reliant spirit, and to Wilder’s quiet observations of seemingly unimportant moments that give daily life resonance: night stars, a child’s joy at scratching a peephole through ice on a window, the velvety feel of a horse’s nose, the warmth of pockets in the cold.
Such moments add charm to “Little House Christmas,” the current production of which has a different cast and mostly different technical staff from the theatre’s 2014 presentation of the play. It still features dances and vintage carols like “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” and has added “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The show is grounded by Ma and the good-humored Pa Ingalls, respectively portrayed by Rachel MacLaughlan and Rich Cassone.
“Their relationship is essential,” Kalmus says. “It shows you how hard those women worked. And how there was no discussion about women being weaker, because they were out there plowing the acres with their husbands. They were carrying well water — and we’re talking 40-pound buckets — and chopping wood and stoking ovens and driving teams of horses and oxen and Conestoga wagons. These women were immensely hardy. They really were equal partners.”
Kalmus, who directed Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” last year at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, has deep local roots: Her great-uncles were the Heineman brothers, well regarded architects in the Craftsman movement, and her grandfather had the Sierra Airdrome at what is now the eastern end of Hastings Ranch. She identifies with a sense of lineage embodied in Wilder’s story and themes that remain relevant now, in a year when conversation around the national dinner table has been disrupted by political vitriol, fears of bigotry and distrust.
“[This story] re-establishes some sort of roots,” she says. “It reminds us of who we are and where we came from. I think it comforts us to know that somewhere in our DNA, no matter what immigrant group came in, what pioneering populace, no matter where they come from, there is often this hope.”
“A Little House Christmas” runs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 23 at Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; $25/$32/$34.50. Info: (626) 355-4318. sierramadreplayhouse.org