Although Theater Tribe’s L.A. premiere of Paula Vogel’s “The Long Christmas Ride Home” is being advertised as “a puppet play with actors,” it is as far removed from a standard puppet show as it is from traditional works dealing with the glories of Christmas. It is an exquisitely rendered work thanks to the playwright, theatrical company and director. The play is not flawless — the second half is clunkier — but it’s admirably adventurous, generally effective and contains some of Vogel’s most poetic and moving writing.
The story begins with the titular ride, a family disaster that is a microcosm for the damage that continues throughout the children’s lives. It starts normally enough, with the family visiting their grandparents for Christmas, the kids fighting all the way there.
Rebecca (Luka Lyman), the oldest, thinks of herself as more mature than her squabbling siblings and occupies her mind thinking of boys. Stephen (Jeff Kerr McGivney), who isn’t feeling well, ponders the concept of “the floating world” as described in Japanese art. Claire (Kerrie Blaisdell), the blonde “golden girl,” is happy but confused to receive an expensive gold bracelet from her father (Shaun Duke). When that bracelet is accidentally broken, the tenuous peace in the family snaps violently, the repercussions of which reverberate for decades.
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In the first half of the show, all three of the children are portrayed by puppets and all voices are performed by Duke and Mary Manofsky as Man and Woman, respectively. Manofsky displays a brittle facade of strength underlain with a sea of misery as the mother, but she is also alive to the quirky humor of the play. Duke impressively alternates flashes of frightening temper with moments of gentleness and subtlety.
The puppeteers who work in this sequence are phenomenal, with such detailed movements that the puppets quickly seem alive. The puppets never stop acting, even when the focus is not on them, which adds considerably to the illusion.
The second half of the show depicts the now-grown children, portrayed by three fine actors, but the play falters as Vogel’s writing slips from sublime to standard and stereotypical. The adult children are mostly cliches, the decision to use one as a saintly ghost regrettably maudlin. McGivney fares best, bringing a rueful wit to the role, although Lyman and Blaisdell each have moments of poignancy.
Stuart Rogers’ direction is masterful, drawing together such disparate elements as various types of puppetry, a Japanese-influenced score and brilliant production design into a cohesive whole.
Ellen Mattesi’s puppets have a hauntingly expressive quality that serves the production wonderfully. Luke Moyer’s lighting highlights the emotional beats of the play with astonishing skill, and Thadeus Frazier-Reed’s score is the heartbeat of the show. Reed’s sound design is equally strong, and one effect, the simple noise of windshield wipers working in a deathly quiet car, encapsulates in a sound the terrible moment of an entire family afraid to speak.