Actor-director takes center stage in production


Joy (Gracie Balisteri) and Anthony (Sam Saulnier) at the USO dance during the swing scene. photo by KELLY BALISTRERI


Former Carmel High School student Gracie Balistreri stars in and directs an original Christmas play, “Christmas Ghosts of 1944,” written by her mother Kelly Balistreri, in a performance with dancing, singing and acting from local talents presented at three locations in Monterey County through Dec. 16.

A sophomore at Monterey Peninsula College, Balistreri portrays the younger version of Joy, a major character in the production. The younger Balistreri aided her mother starting in early November by helping direct the play.

Kelly has written eight plays, three of which she has directed.

Gracie and her mother are working with Marina Sings and the Forest Theatre Guild, who each asked Gracie’s mother to write the Christmas play for 2017.

“There are a lot of play-within-play moments,” the playwright says. “One of the overarching pieces of inspiration for ‘Christmas Ghosts of 1944’ is a short essay by Charles Dickens called ‘What Christmas Means as we Grow Older.’”

The play was also influenced by “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol,” comparing the main character, George, to both George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge.

George, played by Carmel Middle School teacher Patrick Stadille, is an elderly veteran living in a nursing home. The play centers on how he constantly watching movies and during certain scenes is pulled back into memories of past Christmases. The play starts with memories of George’s friend Anthony, portrayed by CHS student Sam Saulnier.

“My mom and I love the idea that we’re all very influenced by movies,” Gracie says, “and we find that when we’re talking daily, we are constantly pulling movie quotes subconsciously, and movies are just such a big part of our lives.”

Anthony then goes to the recording studio, and sings in place of George as a favor, Gracie says. When Anthony leaves the studio, he is shot, resulting in George feeling guilt though the memories and flashbacks.

Gracie’s character Joy is introduced through a swing-dancing scene portraying the start of a United States Officers’ dance after George watches a clip of the popular Christmas movie “Home Alone.”

“The backstory you don’t see, that you can really just assume, is that Joy and Anthony have grown up with each other, and George as well,” Balistreri says. “George and Anthony have known each other since kindergarten.”

The swing scene is Gracie’s shining moment in center stage, which she shares with Saulnier, and was choreographed by Kieri Coombs.

The play opened Dec. 2 at the First Church of God in Pacific Grove and had two performances at the Carmel Youth Center.

“We wanted to bring the show to the community because it’s Christmastime, and it’s a family show, and all the proceeds go to charity, specifically the Thomas Carmen Food Pantry,” Gracie says.

Students from CHS and Pacific Grove High School are involved in the production as young versions of main characters and as dancers and extras in the swing-dance scene. The play also utilizes the talents of Cheryl Karoly and Charles O’Bannion.

“Christmas Ghosts of 1944” has two more evening performances at 7 p.m. at the Epiphany Lutheran and Episcopal Church in Marina on Dec. 15 and Dec. 16. Tickets are $10, available online at and at the door.