Chicago Theatre Review
Alone and Hurting Through Time and Space
The Long Christmas Ride Home – Strawdog Theatre
The night is cold and crisp as a Man, a Woman and their three young children pile into the family car, heading down the slippery highway toward the grandparents’ house. It’s Christmas, but this one-act play, definitely not recommended for family audiences, isn’t the candy cane, snowflake dusted and twinkle lighted celebration of the holiday that audiences might be expecting from the title. Young Stephen, the only son, is feeling carsick, but this isn’t anything new. His two sisters, Rebecca and Claire, recall with disgust the last time Stephen had an accident in the backseat of their car, and they’re not amused by the prospect of another incident. As this dysfunctional family journeys on through the night, events of the past and present begin to merge, the events blending and blurring into a stark future.
Prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, known for “The Baltimore Waltz” and “How I Learned to Drive,” has written a memory play about how a childhood incident can color everyone’s lives for years to come. The majority of the dialogue is delivered story theatre style, primarily by the Man and Woman. The children are represented by simplified Bunraku puppets, solely operated by the actors playing each role. The children’s voices are even provided by the parents, while they also narrate their own thoughts, feelings and actions. East Asian simplicity and culture colors the entire production with shadow puppetry, masks and Japanese dance. The transitions between the past, present and future come quickly and are sometimes a bit jolting, but the overall effect is a remembrance of a childhood event that forever shapes the adulthood of three siblings.
Josh Sobel’s production nicely ebbs and flows, staged with clarity and precision upon Mike Mroch’s minimalistic set. It’s enhanced by Michelle Underwood’s delicate projections and video design and Jeffrey Levin’s evocative sound design. Puppets created by Stephanie Diaz and masks designed by Shaun Renfo highlight this production, giving this memory play an unsettling, ghostly feel.
Ed Dzialo and Loretta Rezos star as the Man and Woman, a couple whose marriage has gone stale over the years. The Man is a quick-tempered, unfaithful husband, having enjoyed the favors of several women over the years. He’s currently having an affair that may actually be more titillating in memory than in reality. The Woman knows her husband has been and still is leaving home for his “business trips,” but actually sneaking off for assignations with every woman in their church congregation. She ponders whether having another baby will strengthen their marriage, although the Man intimates that his wife is as frigid as the weather. Both actors manage their difficult roles with skill and competence, alternating between objective narrative and personal involvement.
John Taflan plays an effusive, enthusiastic Unitarian minister, whose experiences and obsession with Eastern Asian thought and culture become the focus of the Christmas Eve service. At other moments, Mr. Taflan portrays various incidental characters, as well. All three children find their adult lives haunted by the same kind of infidelity through which their mother suffered. Sarah Gitenstein plays eldest sibling Rebecca who, as a young woman, faces romantic problems and an unwanted pregnancy. Kristen Johnston is the youngest sibling, Claire. As a little girl the remembrance of a Christmas gift, a gold bracelet accidentally being broken, sets off an avalanche of memories and emotions for everyone. Claire grows up and also suffers the devastation of a relationship that’s gone bad.
But it’s Sam Hubbard as Stephen, played with vigor, love and honesty, whose thoughts really comprise this play. Alone and hurting, comforted only by his childhood memories of family, Stephen similarly bears the pain of a relationship gone sour, while suffering from a disease that will eventually take his young life. This play is Stephen’s story and Mr. Hubbard capably serves as our tour guide, transporting his audience gently through time and space on an emotional journey back home.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 30-December 12 by Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.strawdog.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.