Saturday, March 26, 2011

Grim Noel

It's closer to Easter than Christmas, but Single Carrot Theater's current production of The Long Christmas Ride Home would be a welcome gift at any season.

Loosely inspired by Thornton Wilder's Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden, Paula Vogel's play features a dysfunctional family trapped in a hellish Christmas trip and dinner. The Father (Kaveh Haerian) is destroying his family through infidelity, verbal abuse, and physical assault. The Mother (Genevieve de Mahy) has surrendered to despair. As young children, the offspring Claire (Britt Olsen-Ecker), Rebecca (Amy Parochetti Patrick), and Stephen (Elliott Rauh) suffer the violence in utter bewilderment. As adults, the children destroy themselves through acts of self-mutilation. The abuse of too many bitter Christmases has become internal self-hatred.
Uneven in quality, Vogel's script is more convincing in its opening parts, where a trendy Unitarian Christmas Eve service---in trying to keep all spiritual options open, the family is nothing but a spiritual void---forms the prelude to a violent Christmas dinner. The closing section of the play is less persuasive. The parallel destinies of the three children are too pat. The gay son destroys himself through promiscuity, the lesbian daughter prepares to shoot her former paramour, and the straight daughter freezes in a snowdrift when she discovers she's pregnant. Predeceasing his sisters, Stephen becomes their guardian angel; his longstanding tenderness in a broken family gives a poignant note to the conclusion. But in straining for the quality of a parable (with Wilder's Our Town very much in the background), Vogel's text becomes moralizing.

Jessica Garrett's direction expertly weaves the comic and tragic strains of the play into a coherent and moving whole. One of the central features of the play is the use of puppets to represent the young children in their loveless childhoods. Beautifully designed by Betsy Rosen, Don Becker, and Eric Brooks, the puppets are expertly choreographed to express the play's emotions of confusion, anger, resentment, and humiliation. Among the uniformly fine performances, two stand out. Genevieve de Mahy poignantly expresses the despair of the buttoned-down mother locked into a dead marriage she can neither redeem nor abolish. Aldo Pantoja memorably acts the role of the hip Unitarian minister in the evening's most humorous performance; he also does yeoman's duty as the eccentric Grandmother and the mystical Dancer who envelops Stephen in the play's closing glimpse of the afterlife. The stark black set, designed by J. Buck Jabaily, underscores the nihilism of a family whose sins of humiliation and despair pass from generation to generation.

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