Chicago Theater Review: THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME (Strawdog Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 10, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

COALS IN EVERYONE’S STOCKINGS

Sometimes an entire life can crystallize around a seminal recollection. It can freeze a moment of time into a measure of what did and didn’t come true, what might have been, and what could never be. In Brian Friel’s incandescent Dancing at Lughnasa it’s a family gathering that turns out to be their last reunion, seemingly small as it happens, looming huge as the future retroactively enlarges it. In The Glass Menagerie a candlelit scene will come to stand for a lost sister. In Our Town the seemingly idle soda-fountain conversation of next-door lovers changes their lives completely.

Sarah Gitenstein in Strawdog's production of The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media.

A potent and unprocessed memory shapes Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home. Despite the title, it’s a short drama that capitalizes on, then undermines, holiday nostalgia. Strawdog Theatre Company’s revival reinvents “bittersweet” as it deconstructs a family trip into one terrible turning point. Inspired by the play’s Japanese version of a conventional Christmas, Josh Sobel’s staging incorporates rod and featureless Bunraku puppets (by Stephanie Diaz). The cross-cultural commentary deepens the storytelling as much as it expands it. Here the beauty of the commonplace takes center stage, its fragile transience making it matter. Breath in particular becomes for Vogel at once the symbol of our mortality and our continuity.

Sam Hubbard in Strawdog's production of The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media.

Adapting the snapshot memorializing of Brendan Behan’s exquisite A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Vogel at first delivers a fairly ordinary look at an overheated celebration in bitter-cold weather. Playing the dysfunctional intermarried parents (one Catholic, one Jewish and both compromising into evangelism) of a family of five, Ed Dzialo and Loretta Rezos alternate to omnisciently narrate a fairly bleak Christmas visit. A hungry, hopeful family travels through the Beltway to reconnect with penny-pinching grandparents. The Christmas presents received are improvised and recycled, the conviviality another form of noisy desperation. There’s a Christmas sermon delivered by a temporary minister (John Taflan) for the Unitarian Universalist Church who’s obsessed with Japanese culture. He presents a slide show that will resonate with the son Stephen (Sam Hubbard) for years afterward as the handsome lad seeks his own “floating world.”

Kristen Johnson, Loretta Rezos and Ed Dzialo in Strawdog's production of The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media.

But it’s the ride home where childhood crashes into cruelty. When 7-year-old Claire (Kristen Johnson) breaks a bracelet, a slap from the father seems to usher in a terrible future. Awful things are said, to be endlessly regretted and never recalled. The sudden loss of innocence, signaled by a near-disastrous car crash into a pond, suddenly opens up the play to spun-off scenes, flashforwards depicting future heartbreak. Stephen, Claire, and Rebecca (Sarah Giltenstein) are glimpsed dealing with unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, jealousy, child protection, suicidal impulses, and a fatal disease. (As The Baltimore Waltz proved, no one captured the AIDS epidemic as poignantly as Vogel.) No Hallmark Card chestnut-roaster, the play becomes a sardonic valedictory for a family that failed to cherish their last chance for love. Stephen is not the only loved one who becomes a (friendly) ghost.

Kristen Johnson in Strawdog's production of The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media.

It’s a lot of baggage to unpack in an 85-minute one-act, and it’s much less amusing than many in the opening night audience desired. (This is not Jean Shepherd.) But there’s no doubting the sincerity of six sterling performances. You won’t warm your hands by this fire but its cold consolations may atone for a lot of phony holiday cheer.

(Front) Loretta Rezos, (rear) Sarah Gitenstein, Kristen Johnson, Sam Hubbard and Ed Dzialo in Strawdog's production of The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media.

photos by KBH Media

(Front) Ed Dzialo, (rear) Sarah Gitenstein, Kristen Johnson and Sam Hubbard in Strawdog's production of The Long Christmas Ride Home. Photo by KBH Media.The Long Christmas Ride Home
Strawdog Theatre Company
3829 N. Broadway St
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on December 12, 2015
for tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit Strawdog

for info on more Chicago Theater,
visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie Diaz November 10, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Hi! Thanks for your lovely review! To be clear, those are not rod puppets. Unless you are referring to the shadow puppets, which I guess would be!

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Lawrence Bommer November 10, 2015 at 6:32 pm

Yes.
Shadow puppets. My mistake .

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