By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Twenty-three years after “All Through The Night” first debuted on a North Tonawanda stage, the Christmas play by L. Don Swartz will return this week for its 14th incarnation, starting Thursday and running through Dec. 16 at the Ghostlight Theatre on Schenck Street.
Not bad for a show that originally started as a simple alternative to the trials of Ebenezer Scrooge.
“I thought it would be a nice alternative to ‘A Christmas Carol.’ At the time, there was no ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ available,” Swartz said. “We were out of ideas ... and the company said ‘Write one, why don’t you?’ I think they were tired of me complaining about it. We took the risk there and little by little, the audience grew.
“I think it has a no-nonsense, Western-New-York sensibility. It’s not sentimental or sappy. I think people can relate to it ... and I’m just grateful local audiences have embraced it.”
“All Through The Night,” which was first presented in 1989 at the Riviera Theatre, tells the story of a group of seven travelers trapped in a rural train station by a blizzard on Christmas Eve and the children who are rehearsing a Christmas pageant across the street in a church. Swartz, who went to college in Chicago and before that spent time in a boarding school, drew from his experiences for the idea.
“I spent a lot of time in train stations ... I met a lot of strangers, saw a lot of things,” he said. “I was always traveling at holiday time. I always wondered about their stories. You’re kind of thrown together with these strangers and everybody has a story to tell.”
That’s true for the play’s seven travelers — two senior sisters, a college student trying desperately to get home, a young woman haunted by a tragedy, a young couple on the run and a Jewish character, played by Swartz.
Each has a mystery and each has something they’re running to or from, said Swartz, who theorized the darkness in the story is one of the reasons people are drawn to it — and pointed out that even the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” starts with a man trying to commit suicide, and “A Christmas Carol” has its often grim ghost story.
“This is a little dark,” he said. “It’s more like a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. ... I think people respond to the fact that it works differently than a lot of Christmas stories. It’s not typical ... and I think people are responding to that.
“But it’s still happy, it’s hopeful ... and I can’t write anything that doesn’t have comedy.”
One of the people hooked by the show nine years ago was Dan Torres of North Tonawanda, now a theater student at Buffalo State College. “All Through the Night” was the first show he ever saw at the Ghostlight Theatre.
He walked out reciting the lines. Three years after that, he played Francis, one of the children in the show, and now has the role of Neil, the college student.
“I think from that point is when I really gained an interest in theater,” Torres said. “I was in shows before that, but this is the first show that stuck out to me. ... It was the launchpad, almost. I looked at it and said, ‘This is what I need to do.’ It started from there.
“And this year, I’m in the show in this role I’ve thought about since I first saw it, and with these people I’ve know and loved for years now. It’s really bizarre for me.”
Torres also agreed that it’s the unexpected nature of the story that gets people — like himself — hooked and coming back year after year.
“The way it starts out ... we’re like, ‘This is a Christmas story?’ But by the end of the second act, if you weren’t in the Christmas spirit when you walked in ... you’re ready to go deliver presents to everyone on your block,” he said. “It’s got all the elements of a classic Christmas story; it’s just a version of it you would never expect.”
Julie Senko of North Tonawanda, who has been involved with Ghostlight Theatre since 1986, plays the role of Anne, one of the travelers who’s dealing with a tragedy in her past.
“I love portraying her,” Senko said. “I love her story. Each traveler has a different story to tell, and I love all the different stories that weave through.
“It makes you look at people differently, so you don’t just sit there and judge. It makes you look at them in a better light. You never know. There could be a reason for everything.”
After the first few years, the show settled into a pattern of once every three years, in rotation with “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the theater group, Swartz said. In addition, it’s been performed by other groups in 19 states and British Columbia, Canada. Five groups are performing it this year, including ones in Colorado and Wisconsin, he said.
Despite its popularity, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t continually find things to improve.
“Oh, people are so tired of me tweaking it,” Swartz said. “... As a playwright, it can be kind of tricky to come back to it. As a writer, that’s where you were at the moment. And 20 years later, to come back to it ... it’s tricky. But this one, we’re kind of committed to coming back to it.”
Not only has Torres returned to the show, but this year his younger brother, Ben Torres, 12, is performing one of the children’s roles. It’s just a measure of how much of a tradition the show has become in North Tonawanda, he said.
“I think in North Tonawanda and Buffalo in general, this show has become a holiday classic to us,” Dan Torres said. “We don’t run it 24 hours a day seven days a week on TBS, but people wait for it those three years. I really think it’s the result of being such a well-put-together show and one that you’ll remember that really makes people want to come back.”
The play will be presented at the Ghostlight Theatre, 170 Schenck St, North Tonawanda, starting Thursday and running through Dec. 16. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 7, 8, 14 and 15; and 2 p.m. Dec. 9 and 16.
Tickets can be reserved online at www.starrynighttheatre.com or by calling the theater at 743-1614.IF YOU GO • WHAT: "All Through The Night" • WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 7, 8, 14 and 15; and 2 p.m. Dec. 9 and 16. There will also be a pre-show harp concert by Sean Polen 30 minutes before each Saturday and Sunday performance. • WHERE: Ghostlight Theatre, 170 Schenck St, North Tonawanda • FOR TICKETS OR MORE INFORMATION: Tickets are $17 general, $15 for veterans, students and seniors. Tickets can be reserved online at www.starrynighttheatre.com or by calling the theater at 743-1614. All patrons are encouraged to bring canned goods and non-perishables for a local food pantry