Profoundly sad and shot through with fiercely beautiful writing, “The Long Christmas Ride Home” is Paula Vogel’s 23rd play and her first since her 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive.” With its adventurous blend of puppets, live actors and Japanese theatrical elements, it’s also Vogel’s most daring work — and one of her best. Both the play and Oskar Eustis’ imaginative production sometimes border on overkill, and the themes are perhaps overfamiliar Vogel territory. But it’s one of most absorbing evenings in the theater to come along in some time.
The play is a tribute to Thornton Wilder’s “The Long Christmas Dinner” and “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.” It also evokes Wilder’s better-known “Our Town,” which Vogel describes as “Wilder’s response to Japanese ghost drama Noh.” At other times the play brings to mind “M. Butterfly” and “Angels in America,” even as its sensibility is pure Vogel.
It revolves around a family of five driving on icy roads to Christmas dinner with the mother’s parents. The stage is black, with a rippled scrim at the rear and a pristine white platform in the center. A middle-aged couple (Timothy Crowe and Anne Scurria) enter and begin to narrate the play. They are joined by a group of black-clad puppeteers who wield three wonderful, nearly life-sized puppets representing the couple’s children. Crowe and Scurria supply the voices of the kids, too, often revealing the characters’ thoughts rather than the words spoken.
The father is a serial philanderer. The loveless wife is considering an affair of her own. Their eldest child, teen Rebecca, is lusting after boys. Son Stephen, who is prone to car sickness, is a budding “pansy,” as his father puts it, who wonders why his father doesn’t love him. The youngest, 7-year-old Claire, is already evidencing lesbian tendencies, along with the belief that what goes wrong that Christmas Day is all her fault.
The Christmas dinner quickly degenerates into chaos, and on the way home the car spins out of control when the father raises a hand to strike his wife. The play hurtles suddenly into the future, with the puppeteers taking on the roles of the children as adults. In three similar scenes, the grown children yell up at their lovers. They’ve each been locked out of their homes for various reasons.
Rebecca (Rachael Warren), now looking like a substance-abusing tramp, is pregnant by the best friend of her live-in lover. Stephen (Stephen Thorne) has been locked out because his lover has taken up with a teenage boy. “I have always depended on the hardness of strangers,” Stephen says. He contracts AIDS from a leather-clad stranger. The lover of lesbian Claire (Angela Brazil) has taken up with another woman.
The Japanese elements are introduced early on, when the family attends a Unitarian Universalist Church service (the father is Jewish, the mother a lapsed Catholic). There, the smarmy minister presents a slide lecture on Japanese art of the Edo period. Throughout the play, musician Sumie Kaneko sits on stage playing the shamisen, a lute-like instrument; there’s considerable irony when she plucks the melody of “Good King Wenceslas.”
There is also an unusual scene, late in the play, in which Stephen dons a Japanese robe and appears as a ghost. He couples with another man, who then performs a highly gymnastic Japanese dance. (Sean Martin Hingston, who plays several other roles, does this brilliantly — but just what does the dance mean in the scheme of things?) Eventually the play returns full circle to the family returning home in the car.
Brilliantly staged and designed, the production is also finely acted. It can only be improved by judicious pruning.