Three Decembers Synopsis


Three Decembers

In One Act
By Jake Heggie and Gene Sheer
Based on the play by Terrence McNally

Characters & Synopsis

Madeline (Maddy) Mitchell: A Famous, glamorous and beloved American actress and singer. 
Beatrice (Bea): Maddy’s daughter; married to Syd with whom she has two children. They live in Hartford.
Charlie: Maddy’s son; a gay man who lives in San Francisco with his partner, Burt.

Part One, 1986
Siblings, Charlie and Beatrice (Bea), each hold a copy of their mother’s annual Christmas letter. Although separated geographically with Charlie in San Francisco, and Beatrice in Hartford, Connecticut, they read the letter together on the phone. Their mother, Madeline (Maddy), writes that she wishes she could be with them for Christmas. As fortune has it, she is working in the Caribbean for the holiday. They share laughs and unapologetic sarcasm over their mother’s writing style, their attempt at glossing over their often strained relationship with her.

Madeline’s voice joins her children, as she reminisces of a Christmas in San Francisco with the children’s father, before they were born. Beatrice admits that she hardly remembers their dad, as she was just seven and Charlie five when he died, but they miss him nonetheless. Charlie, now twenty-six, recognizes that at his age, their mother was already a widow. Despite being angry with his mom, he likes hearing stories of his dad.

Maddy continues the letter, apologizing to Charlie and forgiving him of past grievances. She announces that she will be starring in her first Broadway musical. Charlie refuses to attend. Maddy concludes the letter with goodbyes; however, she mistakenly addresses Charlie’s partner, who is sick with AIDS, as Curt. Charlie becomes increasingly upset, having hoped that after five years with Burt, his mother would have at least remembered his name. Beatrice admits that she envies the love Charlie and Burt share. Before she can elaborate, Charlie has to leave and their conversation ends.

Part I, Scene II & III
A well-dressed Beatrice joins Maddy in her dressing room after a performance of Maddy’s new Broadway show, Daybreak. Bea praises her mother’s performance as she instinctively helps her mother with the post-show dressing room routine.

Beatrice is very concerned for Charlie and Burt, as Burt’s health deteriorates. She accuses Maddy of being an absent parent, unsupportive of her children. Defending herself, Maddy claims she was only away from her children because she had to provide for the family as a single mother. Both Beatrice and Maddy question why life seems to be so hard.

Part I, Scene IV
Beatrice visits Charlie in San Francisco. Burt is not doing well and Charlie is coming to terms with Burt’s looming death. Charlie feels that their mother continues to disapprove of his lifestyle; assuming that she believes AIDS is a punishment for being gay. The siblings reminisce on their childhood; what they remember, specifically of their father, and what they wished they remembered.

Part II, 1996

Charlie is alone in his apartment, surrounded by packed and sealed boxes. He sits flipping through his journal, disclosing that Burt died seven weeks ago. Maddy eventually came to visit right before Burt died. Maddy’s voice comes in, singing the lullaby Charlie’s father used to sing to him, and which she sang to Burt when she visited.

Part II, Scene II
Maddy has been nominated, again, for the Tony Awards. Bea and Charlie plan to join their mother for the award ceremony. All three in their respective locations sing the father’s lullaby; encouraging each of them to let go of their fears and frustrations.

Alone in Maddy’s apartment on the night of the Tony Awards, Bea stands in front of a full-length mirror. She is trying on her mother’s clothes as she sips from a glass of white wine, refilling occasionally. Beatrice is slowly unraveling in her insecurities: her mother’s criticism and neglect, her unfaithful husband and her drinking habits. Charlie rushes in with shopping bags. He notices that Bea is upset, but she denies it. He attempts to cheer her up with impersonations of their mother.

Madeline enters, interrupting the sibling banter. She is preparing for the Tony Awards, and discussing her acceptance speech. She plans to acknowledge Charlie and Burt’s relationship and how no one is immune to tragedy. Charlie and Beatrice are unimpressed.

Maddy accuses Bea of being drunk and acting just like her father, revealing the grim truth that their father was a drunk who could not maintain a job. The children believed that their father had been killed in an accident, but Maddy finally shares that his death was a suicide, making up the car accident to protect them. Charlie and Beatrice are devastated.

The argument is interrupted, unresolved, as Maddy has to leave to go to the awards. Bea and Charlie, feeling victimized, refuse to accompany Maddy to the Awards.

Part III, 2006
Maddy has died quietly in her sleep, after writing her latest Christmas letter. Beatrice and Charlie speak at Maddy’s memorial service held at a Broadway Theatre. Maddy’s voice joins in, explaining that she found “on the stage what every person desires. Not escape. But connection.” Bea gives tribute to both her parents’ souls. The service concludes with a few lines from Maddy’s last Christmas letter; “All in all isn’t life simply grand? I’m so awfully glad I showed up for it.” Finally, all three are in agreement.

Jake Heggie Biography

Jake Heggie is the composer of the operas Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, To Hell and Back, The End of the AffairOut of Darkness, and the choral opera, The Radio Hour. He has also composed more than 250 songs, as well as chamber, choral and orchestral works. The operas – most created with writers Terrence McNally and Gene Scheer – have been produced on five continents. Moby-Dick (Scheer) was telecast throughout the United States in 2013 as part of Great Performances’ 40th Season and released on DVD (EuroArts). Dead Man Walking (McNally) has received more than 40 international productions and has been recorded twice (Atlantic Records and Virgin Classics). A Guggenheim Fellow, Heggie has served as a mentor for the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, and is a frequent guest artist at universities, conservatories and festivals throughout the USA and Canada. Upcoming commissions include Great Scott (McNally) for The Dallas Opera, starring Joyce DiDonato; songs for mezzo Jamie Barton and cellist Anne Martindale Williams (Pittsburgh Symphony, Carnegie Hall); an a cappella work for The King’s Singers; and a new work based on It’s A Wonderful Life for Houston Grand Opera. Complete bio.