Thursday March 22 3:59 am

Spotlighting events along the south shore of Lake Michigan

Mercury Theatre's Production of "The Christmas Schooner" never fails to move me!


Late in the nineteenth century, brave sailors risked life and limb on the icy waters of Lake Michigan in November to bring Christmas trees to German immigrants living in Chicago. John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon paid tribute to their heroic stories in “The Christmas Schooner”.

Captain Peter Stossel (Stef Tovar) has a good life and thriving business in Manistique, Michigan. He lives with his wife, Alma (Brianna Borger), his 9-year-old son Karl (Leo Gonzalez), and his father, Gustav (Don Forston). The Stossel family honors a lovely German tradition at Christmas dinner when Alma passes a branch of fir to family and friends at the table, while singing a song called “The Blessings of the Branch.” By the way, at the end of each performance, the cast shares that touching tradition with the audience.

One Christmas, Peter received a letter from his cousin Martha (Nicole Armold) telling him of her yearning for a Christmas tree, a part of their German tradition. Since his land is covered with fir trees which need to be thinned out, he decides he could harvest some trees and sell them in Chicago.

The following November, over Alma’s protests, Captain Stossel, his father Gustav and a small crew – Rudy (Ryan Stajmiger), Oskar (Ronald Keaton), and Steve (Harter Clingman) – sailed down the lake toward Chicago with a load of trees, not knowing if they’d sell any of them. When the schooner arrived at the Clark Street dock, they were surprised to find a huge crowd waiting for them. To their amazement, they sold all the trees in just one day.

Captain Stossel continued bringing Christmas trees to Chicago until the year his son Karl (Christian Libonti) turned 15. That year, Gustav broke his arm, so over Alma’s objections, Karl joined the crew. In a terrible winter storm, Captain Stossel held the wheel until the crew got into the lifeboat, but lost his life.

After a harrowing train ride, Alma and Gustav found Karl in the hospital. He informed his mother that the trees had floated to shore and another captain offered to sail the trees to Chicago. Alma said no way, Karl insisted that the crew had voted to go. Alma decided to go along.

In Chicago, a small girl, Mary Claire Daughtery (Stella Hoyt, although Elise Wolf stepped in at the performance I attended), was waiting for the ship. Even though her father told her the “Christmas Tree Ship” had sunk, she said she knew the trees would come!

Nicole Armold, Kelly Anne Clark and Holly Stauder act as a kind of Greek chorus, narrating the story. Jared Rein, Dan Gold, Elise Wolf and Ben Miller are also in the cast.

Sailing ships continued to bring Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago for many years. More recently, Coast Guard ships continue to bring Christmas trees into Chicago for people who can’t afford to buy one,
Chicago’s own Christmas story, “The Christmas Schooner” had a 12 year run at the old Bailiwick Theatre, as well as a 2009 production at Theatre at the Center. This is Mercury Theatre’s seventh production.

“The Christmas Schooner” runs through December 31st at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (in the heart of Wrigleyville), Chicago. Valet parking is available. Running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes, with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 8:00 pm; Thursdays at 3:00 and 8:00 pm; Fridays at 8:00; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00; Sundays at 3:00 with an additional performance on Tuesday, December 26th at 8:00 pm. Tickets range from $30-$49.50. FYI (773) 325-1700 or