‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’: BSH students do the story justice

Erin Maynes as Imogene Herdman as the Virgin Mary in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at Blessed Sacrament Huguenot, Powhatan, on Dec. 1. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

Can a 2,000-year-old story be performed in a way that still feels fresh?

That was the challenge that Blessed Sacrament Huguenot School (BSH), Powhatan, undertook in performing “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” Dec. 3-4. Led by Martha O’Brien, drama director, BSH students from grades 6-12 participated in a version of the Christmas story written by Barbara Robinson and adapted for the stage.

“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” uses the “play-within-a-play” technique, giving center stage to both an original story with unique characters and the traditional Christmas pageant, featuring Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men.

At the outset of the play, a group of six delinquent siblings called “the Herdmans” are the terror of a small American town. After showing up at Sunday school for the first time ever – inspired by rumors of doughnuts and cake – the Herdmans volunteer for the main roles in the Christmas pageant.

Lily Hickey, BSH senior, was impressive as Beth Bradley, matriarch of the churchgoing family of protagonists and reluctant director of the town Christmas play. Victoria Sweeney played Beth Bradley, a kind-hearted teenager who functioned as the narrator; Erin Maynes was Imogene Herdman, the cigar-smoking ragamuffin who took on Mary’s role in the pageant; Beatrice Sweeney was Gladys Herdman, the wild little sister of Imogene who thinks the angel of the Lord should announce the birth of Christ with the catchphrase “Shazam!”

In this scene from “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” children sit in Sunday School as their teacher discusses the upcoming Christmas pageant. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

“We don’t always do a Christmas play,” O’Brien explained. “This was one we did ten years ago. We dusted it off and brought it back. It’s always a winner.”

Last year, the winter play was “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In the spring of 2024, BSH will put on “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a comedy classic by Joseph Kesselring.

Thirty-six BSH students performed in the play, assisted by 21 members of the stage crew, four members of the light and sound crew, and two student directors. Barbara Rogers, librarian and director of set design, said that student Haley Houston essentially had free reign over fashion choices as costume director.

“We have a big storage unit upstairs, so I rummage through all of that and put together costumes. Sometimes we go to Goodwill for pieces and parts,” said Houston. “A lot of the costumes you saw onstage, I made” – including the cloaks for the shepherds, angels and wise men.

“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” maintains dramatic tension and uncertainty during the familiar climax of the Nativity story by casting the Herdman children as the Holy Family. Nobody knows exactly how the Herdmans will play the roles, or whether the whole pageant will collapse into chaos. But the Herdmans’ unique attitudes instead refresh the ancient story, leading the town to dub the performance “the best pageant ever.”

Imogene Herdman, who has never heard of Mary or seen a manger, refuses to let go of the Christ child, instead cradling and burping him. Her sister Gladys, appearing as the angel, terrifies the shepherds – by chasing them around the stage. And all six Herdmans, who can’t understand why a baby needs frankincense, substitute the ham from their own donated basket.

“They look like refugees,” says Alice Wendleken, a prissy teenager played by Aubrey Pool in her first year of drama at BSH.

“They were refugees,” Beth Bradley reminds her.

As Maynes – who played Imogene Herdman – as the Virgin Mary – wept convincingly, the angel choir sang Silent Night, and the BSH students managed to square the circle of traditional Christmas feeling with novelty and invention.

For the first performance, elementary school students from St. Edward, North Chesterfield; St. Bridget, Richmond; St. Joseph, Petersburg; and All Saints, Richmond, were in attendance, visiting for a Friday morning field trip.

“We loved having you here,” BSH Head of School Tracy Hamner told the visiting students. “We’re thankful to everyone for making this happen.”


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