Holiday fare tends to fall into two camps: warm and fuzzy and dark and dreary. The endlessly adaptable appeal of the likes of rare gems such as “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the brilliant way that both are able to straddle both joy and terror, but few yuletide works are able to walk that tightrope effectively without polarizing over into one or the other. House Theatre’s world-premiere version of “The Nutcracker” is able to do so in a manner that is so fresh, so imaginative and so convincing that it seems destined to become a true holiday classic. The premise is simple enough: take the bare-bones outline of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story, remove the sugar-plum fairies, tutus and Tchaikovsky score and contemporarize the setting with the tangy twist of a bereaved Clara working through the sudden loss of her elder brother with the help of her Uncle Dresselmeyer, who has brought her a nutcracker likeness of her brother that comes to life with her other toys to help her deal with the problem of menacing mice in the house. Her parents are worried that they are losing a daughter in addition to a son, and the demons that the entire family faces in the battle of the mice versus the toys becomes an odyssey into the world of childhood fears, phobias, resilience, self-reliance and loss that really makes you remember what it is like to think like a child in a very unromanticized manner. Unlike adults who, children have no control whatsoever of their lives, and the omnipresent parental dictum that Clara may have to “go away for a while” after the New Year because of what her parents perceive as a festering obsession is as ominous as any seven-headed rat king, real or imagined. Whatever losses we encounter, whether as children or as adults, we have rituals and rules for helping us let go—vastly different though they may be—and this work offers the constructive alternative of allowing a child to cope head-on with grief in a healthy and liberating way rather than our usual cultural approach of sweeping death under the rug where children are concerned. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, (312)335-1650. This production is now closed.