Disappointing Christmas tale is a project commissioned by American Playhouse and scripted by Michael Genet about a newly assigned 34-year-old minister, a pregnant homeless girl, a vet who runs a homeless mission and, slightly, a grumpy character who sees the light. Halfway through Genet’s tale of a black church in Washington, D.C., the storyline dives into bathos.
Dapper Rev. Crawford, transferred to run the church, bumps into politics inside, utmost poverty outside. Pregnant 16-year-old Katherine, just in from the boondocks, wanders into single-dad Crawford’s parish house, where his son, Nat, plays sullen for his own reasons.
All this builds plausibly into a good teleplay with potentially strong character Big Willie running a homeless mission and Crawford trying to ingratiate himself with everybody. Katherine, who’s supposed to have a special glow about her, gets near her time for a Christmas delivery.
Characters start acting silly. The preacher’s son runs away; Crawford, finding Big Willie drunk on Christmas Eve, unbelievably goes to sleep in Willie’s residential crate; Katherine has her baby on Christmas morning at the grouch’s so he can have a miraculous change of heart.
One of the program’s joys is the sermon of a passed-over minister, Rev. Foy, played to the fullest by Ray Aranha; Crawford, played comfortably by handsome Dennis Haysbert, delivers a simple-minded second sermon. Sweet-faced Tracy Douglas’ Katherine, especially in the program’s first half, pulls off several effective moments. Keith Davis convinces as big-hearted Big Willie; James Earl Jones lumbers through the unenviable role of the grouch.
Writer Genet, as a homeless man, turns a fine burst of anger into something substantial. Phyllis Bash, limning a hard-hearted committee topper, makes a strong impresh.
Ron Fortunato’s camera, director Charles Lane and designer Ina Mayhew create a strikingly appalling mission, and a church song session enlivens the effort.