Holiday blues 

Formative years lay sorrowful groundwork for adulthood in Long Christmas Ride Home

The first thing you notice about The Long Christmas Ride Home are the puppets.

Despite the play's Yuletide setting, they're not happy little elves or manger-scene stalwarts. Instead, the puppets represent three young children. The play's action mostly follows one family's rounds at Christmas, with the kids bundled in the backseat of the car, and we can't help but find melancholy in the puppets' expressions, as if the youngsters already feel the pressures of adult life.

Manipulating the puppets are three actors who later play the tots as grown-ups. That device provides a potent image -- the adults standing at the shoulders of themselves as children. Then again, perhaps the children should've been puppeteers for the adults. As The Long Christmas Ride Home powerfully demonstrates, our youthful formative experiences manipulate our adult actions, not the other way around.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel reveals more thoughtful ambitions with her play than simply feasting on seasonal nostalgia, a la A Christmas Memory, or satirizing the holidays as in The Santaland Diaries. Vogel nods to both kinds of shows, but although Christmas provides the play's backdrop, The Long Christmas Ride Home more eagerly explores the repercussions of childhood and how mortality and Eastern spirituality reveal the emptiness of suburban family life. The play presents some astonishingly affecting insights, but it falters the further it moves into fantasy.

In the first half, the unnamed mother and father (Kathleen Wattis and Jeff Feldman) sit in the front seat and alternate narration as to grandmother's house they go. Vogel's vivid descriptions -- the car's pressing heat, the winter air's refreshing bite -- have the precise detail of tactile prose. When the parents voice their private worries over money and sex, The Long Christmas Ride Home could be an extract from John Cheever, complete with the refrain, "And they all replenished their drinks."

Vogel also ventures inside the heads of the kids: Rebecca (Stacy Melich) and Stephen (Adam Fristoe) each guiltily think about boys, while Claire (Kelly Marckioli) longs for guns and cowboy outfits -- all hints about their future sexual preferences. Wattis and Feldman frequently speak for the children's interior monologues, so the actors essentially do double-duty, conveying the emotions of both adults and children. Feldman attunes so well to the father's uptight hostility that he has trouble tapping into juvenile vulnerability. Wattis captures the concerns across generations, particularly when a Christmas party goes horribly wrong and Claire miserably blames herself.

Despite the play's moments of crushing sadness, Vogel finds room for funny insights into mixed marriages and all-American religion. With a lapsed Catholic mom and an assimilated Jewish dad, the family attends Unitarian Universalist services as if by default. The minister (Theroun Patterson) wears a sweater with a duck pattern and discusses Buddhism on Christmas Eve, a funny incongruity with unexpectedly deep implications. You could write a treatise on the cross-cultural significance of a Jewish man taking Jesus' name in vain on Christmas Day.

When the play leaps forward in time, we find the now-grown Rebecca, Claire and Stephen each standing outside a lover's door on a wintry night. All three have grown to be willfully self-destructive, if not downright suicidal, and their dialogue echoes lines from the past, cues that their dysfunctional family life activated time-delayed bombs that would eventually sabotage their future relationships. Melich, Marckioli and Fristoe affectedly find their characters' passions and bitterness, but their performances tend to be upstaged by the play's complicated frills.

In a quirky touch, the three all interact with shadow puppets instead of live actors, and we even catch glimpses of gay puppet sex for some naughty laughs. The play's bunraku puppetry style, along with the Japanese-style architecture of Derek Kinsler's set, reflects The Long Christmas Ride Home's fascination with Eastern culture. We get a sense not only of how contrived American holidays may look to outsiders, but in the play's greater leap, how unhappy and shadowy the living look to the dead. The Long Christmas Ride Home tries to convey genuinely mystical experiences, informed by Eastern conceptions of the soul. A wordless dance scene between two men -- one living, one deceased -- nearly does justice to the ineffable, thanks partly to Patterson's grace in motion.

With such complex ambitions for the play, Vogel cuts some corners. She resorts to theater's most recent and pervasive cliché, the "friendly AIDS ghost," and the grown children's monologues have such forced similarities that you can hear the writer pulling the strings. Place A Long Christmas Ride Home alongside Vogel's earlier plays such as How I Learned to Drive and Hot 'n' Throbbing and you can see how the writer too easily resorts to blaming social problems on the brutishness of men.

In using holidays, ghosts and flashbacks, The Long Christmas Ride Home could be a contemporary Christmas Carol turned inside out. The children's fraught experiences reveal not how to appreciate the holidays and childhood so much as how to survive them. Vogel's puzzling yet unforgettable play finds enduring lessons in its post-mortem of one family's worst Christmas ever.

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