Sometimes watching paint dry can be fascinating. Case in point: “Christmas Is Miles Away” by Chloe Moss, worthy winner of this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn award. Coming-of-age drama, set in working-class Manchester in the late 1980s, may lack propulsive action and stageworthy conflicts. But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface as three teenagers struggle to grow up and make important decisions in an increasingly confusing and violent world where no adult seems to be in charge. Kiddo thesps giving these smart and sensitive perfs are all students or recent grads of local theater schools, so keep those grants coming.
At 16, best friends Christie (Alex Fast) and Luke (Roger Lirtsman) are ready to grow up, if they only knew how. But for now, they’re content to drink beer, chill out at their secret spot in the woods and talk about girls, who have just started to make an impression on their unfocused minds. Christie’s cramped and messy bedroom (courtesy of set designer Daniel Zimmerman and busy props man Eric Reynolds) pretty much defines the crushing restrictions of their lives.
Even if their parents and teachers don’t understand these kids, Moss does. She knows the music they like, the stupid things they do and the almost incoherent slang that passes for speech. More than that, she knows the scary thoughts they’re thinking but can’t speak out loud, and the confusing emotions they’re feeling but can’t quite identify.
For now, it’s enough for the two friends to hide their fears by clowning around, and under Geordie Broadwater’s easy-does-it helming, both Fast and Lirtsman have the goofy moves down. They also pretty much nail the thick Northern-Brit accents thanks to some uncredited dialect coach.
More impressive, both thesps find ways to convey the unspoken thoughts and feelings Moss delicately suggests through her jagged lines of dialogue. Fast finds a still point and sinks right into it, letting Christie’s discomfort and confusion gather in his eyes. Lirtsman uses stronger body language, letting Luke’s distress show itself in nervous laughter and jumpy movements.
Once Julie (Emily Landham) comes into their lives as Christie’s girlfriend, the friends get a lesson in speech. As a dedicated talker, Julie has no use for the horsing around that passes for communication in an all-boys world. Landham has a nice handle on the crisp intelligence that gives Julie her girl-power, and it’s fun to watch her frustrated efforts to make Christie talk the straight talk smart girls like to hear.
But no matter what Julie does, neither Christie nor Luke ever learn to communicate either with her or with one another. It’s almost physically painful to watch the two friends trying and failing to address the fears that are driving them apart, and once Luke joins the Army to fight in the first Gulf War, what might have been said now becomes unspeakable.
So many lost words, so many lost chances — all of it falling through the cracks, and all of it faithfully noted by a playwright who knows how to articulate dead silence.