MASON CITY — Tom Ballmer first directed “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” 20 years ago at the Black Hawk Children’s Theatre in Waterloo.
The next year, his church asked him to direct its Christmas pageant. Ballmer declined, knowing the chaos that comes with such an undertaking.
However, Ballmer, executive director of Stebens Children’s Theatre, has directed Barbara Robinson’s classic Christmas story several times since then.
The play centers on the unruly and unchurched Herdman family, who bully their way into a church’s Christmas pageant.
“This play is ofttimes pointed to ... (as) the playwrights’ play,” Ballmer said. “Every word is so well chosen.”
“The Herdmans have no idea of the terminology” of the church, said Elizabeth Ouverson, who plays Grace, the mother and pageant director. “It’s all new to them.”
Words that churchgoers hear every year, like manger and swaddling clothes, are unknown to the Herdmans.
“They’re not afraid to ask questions,” said Carolyn Bernemann, who plays Beth, the narrator and Grace’s daughter. “All the kids learn when the Herdmans ask questions.”
“I really, really, really enjoy playing Imogene (Herdman),” said Lydia Ouverson. “Imogene is the character I’ve played that changed the most.”
Although she’s a tough young teenager, she’s also “an innocent little girl.”
Elizabeth said there’s a part of her character, Grace, that wants to believe in the Herdmans.
“We all hope that our church and teaching can in fact impact on the unchurched in a positive way,” Ballmer said. “Grace sees the Herdmans as an example of what the church could be.”
But having been thrown into the job of directing the pageant, at a pivotal point she doubts that it will work.
“Father puts everyone in the shoes of Mary and Joseph,” Elizabeth said. “It’s not so different from the real Christmas story.”
“There’s kind of a plastic quality to the creche that somehow everything was perfect,” Ballmer added. “The play brings home that nothing was perfect then, and nothing’s perfect now.”