The Long Christmas Ride Home
Holiday memories power this thoughtful, if uneven, play
Published: March 30, 2011
The Long Christmas Ride Home
By Paula Vogel
Through April 17 at Single Carrot Theatre
The Long Christmas Ride Home is an Xmas play in the same sense that Die Hard is an Xmas movie. Sure, it takes place during the holiday season, but it has less to do with Santa Claus and O Holy Nights and it being a wonderful life and good tidings being brought than people firing at each other with high-caliber weaponry and everything going boom. Only in the case of Paula Vogel’s play, the high-caliber weapons are entirely verbal and the things going boom in explosive pyrotechnics are childhood senses of self, family, and beliefs.
As handled by the nimble Single Carrot company, the Ride is just that: an emotional roller-coaster trek through memory’s steep descents and the slow, arduous clank of climbing back up a hill that’s only going to jerk you around and send you spiraling toward bottom yet again. The play is structured as a flashback, as the young man Stephen recalls a singular Christmas where his sense of self—and his family’s sense of itself—irrevocably changed. Elliott Rauh plays the adult Stephen, but in his memory of the event, Rauh operates a Bunraku-style Japanese puppet version of his younger self. Amy Parochetti Patrick plays his older sister Rebecca and operates the puppet version of her younger self, and Britt Olsen-Ecker plays his younger sister Claire and operates the puppet version of her younger self. They’re all somewhat costume color-coded, and props get introduced with each one and reappear throughout the roughly 90-minute one-act play. It’s a narrative that moves with the dreamlike flow of the act of remembering, extremely specific in some details, foggy and inchoate in others, and with an ability to reassess, revisit, and recast moments for discussion and dissection.
In other words, Ride is a multilayered fabric, and everything—from words and phrases to thematic leitmotifs—has a polyphonous meaning. The Japanese puppetry has a narrative and emotional purpose, just as the titular trip—remembered as a car ride to the grandparents’ house for Christmas one year—is as much a description of that act as a subtle acknowledgment of the play’s hallucinatory path through time and space. This ride is the site of a traumatic event as well as an evocation of the long shadow it casts on each of the children’s lives when they grow up. Rebecca matures into a somewhat high-maintenance woman with commitment issues and strong feelings about not reproducing. Claire becomes a lesbian with volatile feelings about cheating. Stephen becomes a gay man living in San Francisco with a sincere appreciation of the Japanese love of beauty. And, the play suggests, how these adults became who they are is deeply rooted in this one dysfunctional family event.
Under the direction of Jessica Garrett, SCT’s production handles this portion of the play with the company’s typically competent acting. The play’s two unreliable narrators are Man and Woman (Kaveh Haerian and Genevieve de Mahy, respectively; both are superb), who not only supply narrative exposition and voice most of the puppet kids’ lines at first, but also serve as the mother and father for this family unit. With indubitable narration and finely calibrated performances, they quickly set up the crucible for this family’s powder keg: He’s Jewish and has repeatedly strayed from the marriage, she’s Catholic and feels she’s no longer as desirable as she once was. Together they take their kids to a Unitarian church—a source of near-constant comedy—and the kids, especially Claire, are never quite sure what that means they’re supposed to believe in. At church, the father sees the woman with whom he’s currently carrying on an affair, and the mother pretends that she doesn’t know, as the entire family sits in the pews listening to the minister (Aldo Pantoja) talk about his trip to Japan and what the West can learn from the East.
By the time the family gets to the grandparents’ (both hilariously enacted by Pantoja) home, Man and Woman have assayed just how tenuous the mother and father’s patience—much less love—for each other is, and once the drinks start flowing, something is bound to ignite. Feelings get hurt and an almost brawl ensues, which leads to a tense car ride back home, a slap, a bridge, and a near-death experience.
Death, in fact, is Ride’s unstated ultimate trip, and one that doesn’t become entirely clear until the play’s second half, when the kids have grown into their more complicated and troubled adult selves, presented as a series of monologues. These scenes are much heavier than the play’s first half—by design, you expect: Everything about childhood can take on multiple patinas when revisited, but when hitting life’s lower points it’s difficult to see anything else. And necessarily, the play’s tone radically shifts during these moments too, creating a strange frisson. Rauh is asked to pull off the most delicate balance of memory and fantasy here, which he capably shoulders during Stephen’s monologue. But by the time you get there, Ride has wandered so far into psychological and emotional territory that it feels a tad therapeutic. That’s less the fault of this production—SCT is one of the few companies in town that doesn’t shy away from genuine downers and often takes you there—than the play itself. It lands a genuine emotional wallop, but it feels a little manipulative and convenient.
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