If it seems strange to present a Christmas show in April, consider that The Long Christmas Ride Home playwright Paula Vogel suggests the show be set in any month but December, thus sparing her audiences the hard truths of this script during an already taxing holiday season.
Theatre Vertigo's production of Vogel's "puppet play with actors" has much to recommend it, starting with a seamless, skillful integration of puppetry and live actors. The show begins in a scene that's quintessentially American: the Christmas car ride, in this case to the grandparents' house. Mom (Heather Rose Walters) and Dad (Darius Pierce) are up front, Dad thinking about the woman with whom he is having an affair, Mom bitterly fantasizing about having an affair of her own. In the back seat, three children squabble and fidget and battle carsickness. The kids are represented by puppets, which paradoxically makes them seem supremely vulnerable; they are manipulated with surprising expressiveness by five puppeteers, three of whom go on to portray the children as adults in later scenes. Narration and dialogue are largely provided by the parents, who narrate both their own thoughts and the sentiments of their children, a dizzying technique that reinforces how completely these kids are at the mercy of their parents.
At a pivotal moment in the car, we flash forward in time to three different scenes, a window to the adult that each child becomes. It's chilling, and does as good a job illustrating what it must be like to grow up with a homelife as seriously fucked-up as anything I've ever seen.
There's a "but." But this is a Christmas story, and Christmas stories have ghosts, and the ghost here wears a kimono and monologues cryptically about Japanese art and pretty much ruins the last 20 minutes of the play by being both inscrutable and tedious. This piece is going to stick with me, but I have a feeling that memory will selectively omit Vogel's dabbling in Japanese culture (if only she'd taken the puppetry and left the art history!), lingering instead on the unsteady, complex family dynamics so precisely captured in the play's earlier scenes.