Pat Launer KPBS-FM
Airdate: March 30, 2007
Leave the children snug in their beds. The puppets in “the Long Christmas Ride Home” aren’t kid-friendly cuties, though they are kids. The life-sized bunraku puppets were written into the play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel, to stand in for the vulnerable, easily manipulated children in a traumatized family. She specified that they shouldn’t be portrayed by kids, or by adults playing at being kids.
The haunting, time-traveling memory play keeps looping back to one harrowing holiday night, when Mother, Father and their three squabbling children piled into the “filthy Rambler” on the way to Grandma’s house. It’s a bumpy ride, and not because it goes ‘over the river and through the woods.’ A terrible row breaks out between Dad and Grandpa, concerning poor sensitive Stephen’s sexual proclivities, and after the battle royale, the kids are hauled out into the icy night. They pile into the car and in one awful, life-changing moment, the unhappy, unsatisfied Mom makes a sarcastic remark about what a pleasant Christmas it’s been (at the moment, Dad is fantasizing about his latest paramour, and Mom is dreaming of maybe having a dalliance of her own), when Dad hauls off and smacks her. The family holds its collective breath as the car veers off the road and onto a precipice (symbolic, like the puppets). Time stands still. And then they’re saved. And the children grow up and give us a glimpse of their disturbed later lives.
It would be just another dysfunctional family story, just another bitter antidote to holiday treacle. But acclaimed playwright Vogel has a lot more on her mind: Japanese theater traditions, the hope and healing that can come from family tragedy, and the 1988 death of her brother from AIDS. She’s fused Japanese puppetry, music and theatermaking techniques with the presentational style of American classic playwright Thornton Wilder. Despite the many intentional distancing effects, we get sucked into the drama.
Everything about this play is surprising and unexpected. There’s a very minimalist set, and shadow puppets as well as the life-size bunraku puppets, and live Japanese-sounding music & percussion. And interpretive dance. The piece moves back and forth in time, and there’s a visitation from the Other Side. The playwright is really experimenting with form, but in spite of the disturbing theme of emotional abuse, the language is very poetic and lyrical.
The marvelous lifesize puppets were created by the Puppetry Center of San Diego to look like the actors at the ages of their characters (7, 9 and 12). They’re vacant-eyed, a little spooky, but magically maneuvered, each by a perfectly synched puppeteer and actor team. Then, the actors come out from behind the puppets to portray the children as damaged adults.
It’s a mesmerizing production, meticulously directed by Lisa Berger, with precise and stylized performances by an excellent ensemble. Chris Buess is especially heartrending as the gay son Stephen who loves all things Japanese, contracts AIDS, and makes visitations to his sisters after he passes on, in order to get them to breathe together again. The themes are deep and dark, but the ending is pierced by shards of light, hope and healing.
© 2007 Patté Productions, Inc.
“The Long Christmas Ride Home” runs through April 15, at Diversionary Theatre.