The Long Christmas Ride Home

THE-LONG-CHRISTMAS-RIDE-HOMEBy Paula Vogel

Directed by Josh Sobel

Produced by Strawdog Theatre Company, Chicago

A Christmas Show for those in Need of Catharsis

Paula Vogel’s writing is deeply personal, and her 2003 play, The Long Christmas Ride Home is one of her major works which was inspired by the death of her brother, Carl, from AIDS in 1988 (the other was The Baltimore Waltz, first performed in 1992). One published edition of the play even includes selections from several years of their correspondence, in which they discuss his love for Japanese culture, and particularly traditional forms of theatre, along with his memorial arrangements. This is why Vogel was inspired to write Long Christmas Ride to be performed with puppets representing the children, in homage to the Japanese art of bunraku puppetry, though Vogel in no way claims her use of it is authentic. The story of how somebody’s brother’s life was cut short by a horrifying disease isn’t exactly the typical holiday fare, and was a risky choice for Strawdog and director Josh Sobel. However, Vogel’s play acknowledges that not everybody’s holidays or family life are idyllic, and this is an emotional time of the year for them, too.

Loretta-Rezos-Sarah-Gitenstein-Kristen-Johnson-Sam-Hubbard-and-Ed-Dzialo
Loretta Rezos, Sarah Gitenstein, Kristen Johnson, Sam Hubbard, and Ed Dzialo. Photos by KBH Media.

The story begins with a family in the 1970s driving through miserable weather on the way to the mother’s parents’ apartment. The middle child, Stephen (Sam Hubbard) says portentously, “I’m going to be sick.” In the moment, nobody particularly cares. The actors who will play the kids as adults handle their puppets, but their lines are delivered by the mother (Loretta Resoz) and father (Ed Dzialo). The two also speak for each other during the early part of the play, until their inner monologues take over from their deceptive exteriors. The father, an assimilated Jew, is a serial adulterer who loves his current mistress much more than his family, except the youngest child, Claire (Kristen Johnson). The mother, a lapsed Catholic, pretends not to be aware of this, and debates whether having another child would improve things, or if she should cheat on him back. The oldest child, Rebecca (Sarah Gitenstein), recognizes how miserable her parents are, and hopes never to have kids.

Kristen-Johnson-Loretta-Rezos-and-Ed-Dzialo-in-Long-Christmas-Ride-Home
Kristen Johnson, Loretta Rezos, and Ed Dzialo

Things get worse in the company of the cheap grandparents, where everybody gets disappointing gifts. The sole exception is Claire, whom her father bought a gold bracelet for with the last money he didn’t spend on the mistress. Stephen, who is in the earliest stage of realizing he is gay, wants to try on the bracelet, and accidently breaks it. After that, a small boy gets punted, slurs are exchanged between father and father-in-law, and a fight ensues which ruins the family. We flash forward to the kids’ adult lives, which all involve getting thrown out by their lovers the day after Christmas (St. Stephen’s Day), with potentially or actually lethal results. These scenes are contrasted with the Unitarian Universalist service the family attended the morning before their fateful ride, at which a substitute minister (John Taflan) introduced them to the concept of ukiyo-e, the appreciation of fleeting moments of beauty in a tempestuous world. Stephen, at least, was receptive.

Sam-Hubbard-in-Long-Christmas-Ride-Home-Strawdog-Theatre
Sam Hubbard

The ninety-minute story is thin on plot, and heavy on atmosphere. This is another aspect in which it pays tribute to Japanese theatre. Strawdog set designer Mike Mroch created a noh-style square stage and runway, with an abstract, tiled Christmas tree on the back wall. This is particularly clever because it incorporates the pillars in Strawdog’s theatre, which I doubt they will miss at whatever venue they end up at after this season. Michelle Underwood’s projections of falling snow set the mood of this quiet, contemplative production. The puppets, designed by Stephanie Díaz, are faceless, allowing them to be used to represent more than one character. This was a little eerie, but the actors imbue them with enough stylized emotion that they are, in a mysterious and strange way, sympathetic without pretending to be fully human. They’re even cute. Since separate people are moving and voicing them, it is a triumph of ensemble acting that they work so well, and only possible because of how in-tune the actors are with each other.

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Sarah Gitenstein (front), Sam Hubbard (back)

This is also a basically hagiographic story, as made explicit by the references to St. Stephen’s Day. Noh drama often features a ghost as the narrator, which is another device Vogel borrows. Fortunately, Sam Hubbard is up to fulfilling the role of the younger generation of the family’s conscious. Gentle at heart and desperate to be loved, Stephen eventually learns a bit of self-respect as an adult, though not until it’s too late. As his younger sister, Kristen Johnson has a soft, but intense monologue about the hollow feeling betrayal leaves, in contrast to the pride derived from being a caregiver. During her brief appearance, Gitenstein establishes that Rebecca would always be the noisiest and most combative of the siblings. All three actors are quite impressive in how they can convey the same characters in two totally different styles. Though dark, the play is not all doom-and-gloom, but Vogel’s message is that there is beauty in harsh things which can only be appreciated at a distance. By using the magic of the stage, Vogel and Sobel created a world in which that’s true. If you’re willing to go along with their vision, The Long Christmas Ride Home will bring you to the peaceful conclusion of a stormy holiday.

Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed November 16, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The Long Christmas Ride Home’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N Broadway St, Chicago. Tickets are $28; to order, call 866-811-4111 or visit Strawdog.org. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 4:00 pm through December 12. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.