Harried Holiday

Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home begins as a tart-tender look at an overworked topic -- the way family dynamics become exacerbated, for good or ill, at Christmas time -- and ends up floundering in sentimentality. The play's defining feature, the thing that should have lifted it from the banal to the revelatory, is the use of Japanese images and devices: Bunraku puppets; Japanese screens; stylized, dance-like movements; characters represented by silhouettes or shadow puppets and inhuman, instrumental sounds; the concept of a floating world in which earthly sensations are to be enjoyed because they are fleeting. Indeed, this is a visually evocative production, with a clean, symmetrical set over which a paper lantern and a plethora of small lights hover like a moon and stars.

A man and a woman are in a car on their way to the woman's parents' house for Christmas dinner. Their thoughts are voiced, sometimes by the thinker, sometimes by the partner, as if the two were, on some level, interchangeable, or perhaps the same person. Their children, Rebecca, Claire and Stephen, sit in the back and are represented by white-faced puppets. There's the usual comic bickering as Stephen becomes carsick and his sisters reprimand him and argue with each other; the children's unspoken thoughts are voiced by the black-clad actors animating their puppet selves.

There's a lot wrong with this family. The father is dreaming of his mistress, married to another man. The mother is contemplating a revenge affair and musing bitterly about her own aging neck and hands. The children punctuate their squabbling with unexpectedly hard blows.

Because the father is Jewish and the mother Roman Catholic, the family belongs to a Unitarian Universalist church. At the service they attend, the minister presents a slide show about his recent visit to Japan, and son Stephen is awed and captivated.

Then comes the scene at the grandparents' house, which involves gifts: The grandmother has salvaged presents for each of the children from the garbage. The father has selected astonishingly inappropriate offerings: a diary for Rebecca, which she will never be able to keep private; a soccer ball for sports-hating Stephen; and an expensive gold bracelet for daddy's little princess, Claire. The bracelet sparks a row that erupts into violence, and the family leaves the grandparents' house. On the drive home, an incident occurs that's so traumatic it stops time and decisively influences the future of all three children.

One by one, the actors playing the children shed their puppet selves. Each has a monologue outside a locked door that has a rejecting lover behind it. Rebecca, who never wanted children, is pregnant. Claire's lesbian lover is making love with someone else. Stephen, similarly abandoned, leaves the door, rushes to a gay bar and has unprotected sex. Even before this piece of the action, we know that Stephen will die of AIDS.

These are all pretty simplistic stories, more sketched out than realized. Vogel, I'm sure, knows this. She's going for universality, a significance that goes beyond transient human action and individual psychology. She uses a lot of repetition. In the very first scene, the father says he's unable to breathe in the presence of his family, and references to breath, breathing and breathlessness abound thereafter. The word "golden" keeps repeating, as do phrases such as "the floating world," "What's done can't be undone" and "Isn't it amazing what people throw away?" -- the latter first uttered by Grandma as she bestows her gifts. It's all cloudily portentous; the repetition should add resonance, but it doesn't. The play gets wordy, and some of the dialogue feels thuddingly obvious. When Stephen has connected in his suicidal search for rough trade, we don't actually need the comment about not using a condom; we get the picture.

Nonetheless, I was engaged by the production up until the moment when Stephen, having died, was swathed in silk -- standing with his hands palms out, like a supplicant, or like Christ on the cross. At the point when he began telling us that he, along with all our ancestors, haunts the earth every year on the day after Christmas, the play lost me. And as for the odd, stylized dance by which Stephen supposedly exchanged breath with someone still living, it was...well, slightly embarrassing.

Looking it over, it seems to me that this review sounds more negative than I intended. As a work in progress, Ride is evocative, and it contains some fine elements -- notably the tender concentration with which the actors vivify their puppets. I was also moved by the first transformation, during which Karen Slack, as Rebecca, embraced her puppet, locked with it and then shed it like a snakeskin to become human.

Chip Walton's direction is respectful and aesthetically alert, and all of the acting is first-rate. Josh Robinson brings the father to life, despite the fact that he's a stock figure. Karen Slack is a passionate Rebecca and Theresa Reid an appealing Claire. Jason Henning does well as the minister, grandfather and grandmother, and, playing Stephen, Stephen Pearce shows impressive feeling, range and control. Mare Trevathan Philpott, an actress who exemplifies the power of silence and breath, is luminous as the mother.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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