Madcap 'Miracle on Christmas Lake' is still funny a decade later

Justin Cox Photography

Justin Cox Photography

With a title like Miracle on Christmas Lake, you know there's going to be a happy ending.

Yellow Tree Theatre

The holiday play's conclusion resonates even more joyfully now than at its premiere: The company that inspired the show's nervous genesis is celebrating its 10th anniversary, making this meta-theatrical comedy feel like a victory lap.

The story behind Miracle on Christmas Lake is now a local legend. Jason Peterson and Jessica Lind Peterson, a married couple, moved back to Minnesota after a stint in New York — where their acting jobs included, for Jason, work in soap operas — and founded Yellow Tree Theatre in an Osseo strip mall.

For their inaugural season in 2008, they planned to produce Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol; then, with rehearsals set to begin in three weeks, they lost the rights to that play. "Frazzled and scared out of my mind," recalls Jessica Lind Peterson in a program note, "I brewed some coffee, sat down at my computer and got to work."

The result was a Christmas comedy about... a former soap actor (Jason Peterson) and his wife (Mary Fox) who inherit a theater in a small town called Christmas Lake, then have to scramble and improvise when they lose the rights to their holiday show.

The play must have truly felt like a gamble for the real-life Petersons: local actors Martha (Jessie Rae Rayle) and Neil (Ryan Nelson) are portrayed affectionately but also as broad, goofy comic characters with pronounced Minnesota accents. There's even a role for a benefactor of a certain age (Miriam Monasch) who doesn't bother to hide her attraction to the new local TV star.

Miracle on Christmas Lake proved an enormous hit for the fledgling Yellow Tree, helping to fuel its continued success as a company that offers much more than seasonal fare (up next is an original musical, Flowers for the Room) but that reliably packs 'em in for productions of Christmas Lake and its 2010 sequel Another Miracle on Christmas Lake.

Founding cast members Fox, Rayle, Nelson, and Jason Peterson have returned to the stage this year, under the direction of the latter, for a celebratory return to the original Christmas Lake. It's not Noises Off, but that's also exactly the point.

At Tuesday night's performance, the audience — seated in the relaxing mesh deck chairs that give Yellow Tree the most comfortable theater seating in the Twin Cities — audibly delighted in the actors' unsubtle shenanigans. The show has a feel-good premise for the suburban audience, all the more so given its roots in reality, and no one seemed to take offense at the hotdish and snowmobile jokes.

(Or, problematically, at an exaggerated Latina maid character. Though poking fun at stereotypes in soaps, in this very white production it's a wince-worthy misstep.)

It helps that the cast know this material and this venue intimately, and have honed the perfect timing for their laugh lines. Several audience members were visibly wiping tears of laughter when the soap-opera adaptation the fictional actors hastily stage reached its zany zenith involving a lost lizard (as in the animal) and a giant mole (as in the skin blemish).

As the satisfied customers made their way to the door after the show, Jason Peterson stepped out to greet them. One community member asked him whether the company needed any costume donations. Thanking the man for the kind offer, Peterson explained, "We just don't have a place to store them."

Maybe in another 10 years.