It was a matinee on the last Saturday before Christmas. Cell phones of absentminded patrons intermittently chirped through the cozy Off Broadway Theatre throughout the performance. A bracingly caustic laugh would occasionally contrast against the rest of the laughter whenever local theater icon John McGivern would hit a punch line. And in spite of the fact it had already been one of the snowiest Decembers in recorded history, and in spite of imminent wind chills around 30 below zero, and in spite of another significant snowfall due to hit by the end of the afternoon, McGivern was able to summon up an irrepressible enthusiasm when talking about what snow days were like in Milwaukee's East Side in the '60s.
McGivern's talent for delivering honest, nuanced stories with wit and enthusiasm is staged once more in Next Act Theatre's Winter Tales-a deliciously concise journey through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve. McGivern is a pleasure to listen to for 90 minutes without intermission as he talks about those distinctive baby boomer memories that have proven to be so appealing to Milwaukee theater audiences year after year. The greatest accomplishment here is McGivern's ability to sustain an audience's attention through stories that are at times very subtle blends of comedy, tragedy and something more. It would be all too easy to let the comedy guide the performance. McGivern takes audiences through some rather uncomfortable moments in what ends up being an impressively deep look into the nature of family during the holidays.
Winter Tales With John McGivern runs through Jan. 4 at the Off-Broadway Theatre.