Reviewed by Judy Richter
Combining the talents of artists from several disciplines, Paula Vogel's "The Long Christmas Ride Home" is sometimes fascinating and sometimes repetitious. Running about 90 minutes without intermission, this 2003 work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ("How I Learned to Drive") uses an intriguing mix of bunraku and shadow puppets, six puppeteers, five actors, a dancer/actor and a musician to tell the story of a dysfunctional family's fateful Christmas.
Presented by the Magic Theatre and directed by Basil Twist, who also created the puppets, the play starts in a smelly old Rambler sedan as a family of five heads for Christmas dinner with the mother's parents in the Washingrton, D.C., area. Much of the first part of the play is relayed entirely by the actors who play the parents. Called the Female Narrator (Julia Brothers) and the Male Narrator (Steve Irish), they not only provide narration and speak their own lines but also give voice to their three children. The children are depicted by puppets, each manipulated by two black-clad puppeteers plus the actors who will play them as adults.
It's not a happy marriage, for the father is having an affair with another woman, and the mother knows all about it. In fact, she thinks about having an affair herself as she worries about losing her youthful looks. In the back seat, the children -- Rebecca, the oldest; Claire, the youngest; and Stephen, the middle child -- have their own thoughts. When they arrive at their grandparents' apartment, they get gifts that the grandparents have admittedly retrieved from trash bin while the adults drink. Before long, the father and grandfather (Jess Curtis) get into a fight that has the family storming out of the apartment and heading for home on snowy, slippery streets. During a fateful moment of confrontation between father and mother, the play fast-forwards about 15 to 25 years to each child's adulthood.
As adults, Rebecca (Lisa Anne Porter), Stephen (Nick Sholley) and Claire (Jennifer Clare) all have similar experiences of being betrayed by their lovers. Of the three, only Rebecca is straight, but she has a serious drinking problem. Spurned by his lover for a younger man in San Francisco, the angry, reckless Stephen has unprotected sex and contracts AIDS. These scenes with the three adults tend to be repetitious, lacking the spark of the childhood scenes.
In another departure from the Christmas ride, there's a flashback showing the family at a Christmas Eve service at their church. There the young minister (Curtis again), talks about his trip to Japan and shows slides of Japanese art. This, too, is a slow scene, although it does establish the roots of Stephen's interest in Japanese culture. One reason why this scene may seem so slow is that Curtis is primarily a dancer rather than an actor. He later shows his dancing skills in a scene with Stephen, choreographed by Joe Goode.
The play is accompanied by Philip Flavin, an ethnomusicologist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and plays the shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument. The simple set is by John Iacovelli, the effective lighting by Kate Boyd, the sound by Norman Kern and the costumes by Todd Roehrman.
Speaking to the press several weeks before the Magic Theatre opening, Vogel called the play a bookend to her "The Baltimore Waltz," which was dedicated to the memory of her brother Carl, a San Francisco librarian who died of AIDS in Baltimore. She called her current play "a Valentine to the San Francisco that my brother loved."
In many respects, it's a fascinating play that's skillfully staged and acted, but weak passages undermine its overall effectiveness.