“The Long Christmas Ride Home” is a play of blurred boundaries — between past and present, love and hate, life and death. “What do we believe?” the youngest daughter pleads. And as the play progresses, these perceived boundaries become more and more skewed, until the audience is no longer able to answer that question for themselves.
The production, which blends people with puppets and American theater with Japanese performance art, is a tragic play. “The Long Christmas Ride Home” follows two parents and three children during a defining Christmas when the family fiber is falling apart, and it explores how this day becomes entrenched in the family members’ futures. During a tense car ride, the audience is able to peer into the thoughts of each character. The violent father can think of nothing other than his illicit affair with “Sheila” from church, while the mother silently wishes she could be young again so her husband would stop his adultery. The oldest daughter, Rebecca, just wants some privacy, while the younger girl, Claire, is overcome with shame. And the boy, Stephen, is consumed by a sense of worthlessness. He feels unwanted and unloved.
Slowly, cast members in black symbolically remove the puppet children from the car, one by one. The puppet master of each doll struggles to hold onto their inanimate selves, and as they are forced to let go, so goes their youth. We are transported years into the future, to a Christmas yet to come.
“What’s done cannot be undone.” Suddenly the father’s haunting words from earlier in the play make sense. The puppets have transformed into humans, and childhood has progressed into adulthood, but the story remains very much the same. A scene from each of the siblings’ older lives is presented, and it is clear that the worries of their youths have never quite escaped them. In one such scene, Lucas O’Connor ’09, playing Stephen, delivers a devastating monologue that shows how the children’s lives have come full circle. “He does not love me; he does not love me. Why doesn’t he love me?” Stephen cries as he watches his boyfriend cheat on him with a younger man, echoing the lines he cried about his father so many Christmases ago.
If the play has any shortcomings, they are in the forced fusion of the Japanese culture into the action. The repeated mentions of “Ukiyo-e” and “floating worlds” don’t seem like they have a place in the script.
But a major strength of the play is the music, which escalates the family’s desolation. Rico Rodriguez ’10, with his electric guitar, quietly strums a dismal rendition of Jingle Bells, reflecting the gloomy nature of a normally happy holiday. At the climax of the performance, as the father lifts his head to strike the mother, a sustained screeching wails from the guitar, and the audience can’t help but hold its breath for a moment.
At the closing of the play, we go back to the car, to the world of puppet children. The family continues on its long Christmas ride home, tense from the events of the evening, and we hope that they can resolve their problems. We are struck by a wave of hopelessness as we realize that we already know how the family will end up. We have seen into the future, and we know things will not get better. Rebecca will be violated, Claire will be ashamed, and Stephen will not live at all.