Perseverance stages rich, complex family drama

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

Often, when I invite a friend to the theater, they first want to know: How long is it? If that answer satisfies them, they will next ask: What's it about?

With "The Long Christmas Ride Home," the first answer is easy: one hour and 20 minutes. Pretty short. That should be manageable even for a theater neophyte.

The second answer requires emptying the mind with a long exhale, then slowly taking in the possibility of many simultaneous themes. We have, in no particular order: marital strain, physical and emotional abuse, alcoholism, "eastern" versus "western" sexuality, homosexuality, social dysfunction, sibling bonding, AIDS, Japanese Noh puppetry, resurrection, religion, recycling, waste, heartache, and unhappy rides in cars. Yes, all these topics are explored in this compact, miraculous play.

The time period of the play spans about 20 years, from 1965 to 1985. It opens with a boy and his two sisters in the back seat of an old Rambler, riding to their grandparents' cramped and faded condo for a Christmas gathering. To portray the children when young, the actors use nearly life-sized puppets to marvelously realistic effect. One of the sisters (Rebecca Burrous) mentioned in an audience participation post-show talk that a challenging aspect of her role was to "disappear" behind her puppet and display no facial emotions while simultaneously speaking her child-character's lines and manipulating the puppet.

Each of the three children carry over emotional scars and recycled Christmas gifts from their childhoods into their adult lives. Part of the thrill of this drama is to witness the emergence of their adult characters.

There are numerous exceptional performances, in particular from Jesse Alleva playing the son in the "dysfunctional" family of five. It is also a real treat to have veteran actors Katie Jensen and Aaron Elmore play the long-suffering wife and the philandering husband.Although the whole ensemble in general, and Jensen and Elmore in particular, work beautifully together to present a cohesive whole, their characters are miles apart. He is a reformed Jew and she a lapsed Catholic. They compromise by attending a Unitarian Church, but that can't bridge the chasm between them.

Despite the dark, heady themes, all is not doom and gloom. There are plenty of hilarious moments, reminiscent, perhaps, of our own childhoods. Also unexpected and wonderful is a juxtaposition of a Japanese esthetic, not only with the puppets, but with the spare set - heavy, squared posts and flesh-toned canvas drapes - and some stunning slides of Japanese artwork.

After the show, Jensen reminded the audience that life is "not black and white, but gray." No one is all evil nor all good, and we should vigilantly guard against becoming judgmental, because - and perhaps this is the complex script's unifying theme - judgment inexorably separates us, drives us apart and drives us to commit desperate acts.

Many layers create this rich, dense theater experience: the rapid pace and concentration of the actors, the unusual score blending traditional Western Christmas tunes with koto music, the multitude of social and psychological themes. We in Juneau are fortunate that this provocative contemporary playwright, Paula Vogel, has taken a liking to our town and our local talent.

Vogel specifically recommends that this play not be staged near Christmas time, because it really isn't a Christmas play. It uses all the expectations around Christmas as a starting point for exploring family and societal dynamics. Sometime after Easter is when Ms. Vogel recommends the play be mounted, which makes me think that the potential for hope and rebirth are, after all, her main themes in "The Long Christmas Ride Home."

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