The Long Christmas Ride Home
Also see Susan's review of Cinderella
Every so often, a playwright manages to create something new and utterly compelling out of material one might consider overly familiar. Paula Vogel has done just that in her haunting play The Long Christmas Ride Home, which Washington's Studio Theatre has given a beautiful production.
Vogel incorporates an adaptation of the Japanese bunraku puppetry technique – large, almost life-size puppets manipulated by black-shrouded puppeteers – and other Japanese-inspired storytelling techniques into her drama of a troubled family at Christmastime. While these theatrical devices may seem off-putting at first, they ultimately serve as a sort of prismatic mirror that both reflects and illuminates, allowing the audience to see beneath the surface to the deeper, unspoken truths.
The author's point is about the ongoing impact of the past on the present, and how the smallest moments can add up to life-changing situations. Director Serge Seiden's delicate touch, and a sensitive cast of actors who also serve as puppeteers, enhance the subtle drama without sliding into mawkishness or becoming overly obvious.
Perhaps the key to the play is in a single line repeated by several characters: "It's amazing what people throw away." Originally a dismissive reaction by parents and young children to their grandparents' need to "recycle" other people's trash into gifts, the line gains depth and poignancy as the children grow up and discover that other things, like relationships and health, also can be tossed away without much thought.
The play, a compact and concentrated 90 minutes long, begins on a long-ago Christmas Day as a family under stress drives to the home of the wife's parents. The narrators (Paul L. Nolan and Laura Giannarelli) represent the parents and also speak for the three children, here played by lifelike puppets manipulated by the actors who will play the roles as adults: Stephen (Kevin Bergen), Rebecca (Tonya Beckman Ross), and Claire (Kate Debelack). When the characters "grow up," the actors take on their characterizations more directly, finally speaking for themselves, even as the past imprisons them and influences their choices.
Vogel grounds the imagery in the character of Stephen, who discovers Japanese art with the help of a worldly Unitarian minister (Bobby Smith) and tries to find personal peace through its principles. The stylized nature of Japanese art comes through in Daniel Conway's simple setting, mostly a round platform with screens on either side and a raised walkway upstage, and in the emotional accompaniment of the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument, by Sumie Kaneko.
Aaron Cromie deserves special mention for his fascinatingly detailed puppet designs. Vogel describes The Long Christmas Ride Home as a puppet play with actors, and the performances of the puppets are just as real, in the world she creates, as are those of the human actors.