Don’t mistake Paula Vogel’s latest work, “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” for stereotypical family fare about finding the meaning of Christmas. Although it exploits the stereotypes surrounding December 25th, this ain’t “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Vogel’s play juxtaposes adolescent sexuality, child abuse, and adultery with the traditional themes of spirituality and family. Using a combination of Bunraku puppet-theater and Indonesian shadow-puppetry, the show escapes the realm of the familiar and takes on magical qualities.
But audiences have come to expect such originality and daring from Vogel, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for “How I Learned to Drive,” a dark comedy that explicitly deals with issues of incest and sexual abuse. This time, Vogel continues to explore the genre of dark comedy by contrasting American dysfunction with Eastern spirituality.
The action centers around a car accident after an uncommonly disturbing Christmas Day. The entire play builds to and emerges from this culminating moment of violence and the fresh spirituality that emerges from it.
Vogel’s notions of spirituality are heavily influenced by Eastern religions. She places her message first in the mouth of a minister at the “Unitarian Universalist Church of Rock Springs.” On Christmas Eve, “that most spiritual of days in the West,” the minister delivers an unorthodox sermon based around Japanese woodcuts that include (to the congregation’s shock) depictions of naked courtesans. The minister explains that it is important to appreciate the beauty of the ephemeral: “It’s not just Joy to the World, it’s joy in the world.” Vogel suggests that the joy we can find in the world is derived from human interaction, especially among family members. In a climactic moment, the three children link arms in the back seat of the car, relying on each other for support and comfort as the vehicle seems about to slip off a steep cliff.
One unique aspect of the production is that the three children are represented by Bunraku puppets skillfully constructed by Basil Twist. Amazingly enough, the puppets are able to convey a surprising range of emotions. Puppeteers in black surround and operate the puppets until the car crash when one puppeteer for each child steps out to portray that child’s adult self. These portrayals by Chelsea Altman, Angela Brazil and Stephen Thorne are sympathetic and effective in relating a family dynamic — despite the fact that they never interact.
For the entire first half of the performance the mother and father carry the entire plot along by narrating the events and even each other’s thoughts. In these roles, Anne Scurria and Timothy Crowe smoothly slip between subjective character and omniscient narrator, without disrupting the flow of the story. They also are convincing in their interactions with the puppet characters, thereby allowing the bizarre convention to succeed.
Unfortunately, this convention is disrupted by a seemingly irrelevant dance sequence in the middle of the play. Although it is beautifully choreographed by Donna Uchizono and gracefully executed by Julio Monge, it is confusing.
Despite this distracting sequence, director Oskar Eustis (artistic director at Trinity Rep where the play premiered) is able to carry the audience through Ms. Vogel’s non-linear plot construction and unusual theatrical conventions; yielding the production eminently comprehensible.
Loy Arcenas’s spare set offers the versatility that the play requires and underscores the instability that the characters encounter with steep slopes and skewed angles that imply motion. On the other hand, Pat Collins’s light design accents Vogel’s humor through the use of campy gobo effects that create some of the simplest and most memorable schtick in the show. Also singular is the traditional Japanese musical accompaniment provided by Sumie Kaneko, which harmonizes with Darron L. West’s radio soundscape to compliment Vogel’s “east meets west” idiom.
This combination of western themes and eastern modes of expression is ultimately successful. The eastern influences alienate the audience enough from the familiar aspects of the story that we abandon preconceived notions of what a “Christmas story” should be, but ultimately it is still western enough to take home.