Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home seems almost like two distinct plays, severed by the cruel sound of hand striking face. In the production currently playing at Single Carrot Theatre, everything about the first half works beautifully—the kind of theatre for which the expression “lightning in a bottle” seems not clichéd but irresistible, and compared to which the second half labors self-consciously.
The play begins on a distant Christmas past, in an old car—a Rambler, portentously— carrying a man and woman and their three young children. The man and woman double as narrators; through their contrapuntal voiceovers, we learn each person’s darkest secrets (and not-so-secrets): the father is an adulterer; the mother—fully aware of her husband’s philandering—contemplates an affair of her own; the oldest daughter, Rebecca, has discovered boys, as has her younger brother, Stephen, a sensitive child with a “soft” face. All the while little Claire bounces in her seat, imagining turkey and presents to unwrap, blissfully unaware that soon one of those gifts will be an outlet for the simmering resentments of her parents and siblings.
A typically dysfunctional family, such as has appeared in countless plays, made atypical not only by the lingering poetry of Vogel’s writing but the manner in which she presents each character. For while the man and woman are performed by actors—in Single Carrot’s production, Kaveh Haerian and Genevieve de Mahy, respectively, who weave their intersecting lines into an engrossing whole—the three children are puppets. Designed by Don Becker and Eric Brooks and adroitly manipulated by Amy Parochetti Patrick (Rebecca), Elliott Rauh (Stephen), and Britt Olsen-Ecker (Claire), with assistance from puppetry consultant Betsy Rosen, the two-foot-high figures seem both human, endowed with the idiosyncratic personalities of their creators, and uncannily archetypal.
The effect frees director Jessica Garrett to stage long sections of the play with minimal action. More than moving actors, Nathan Fulton’s evocative lighting design guides us through J. Buck Jabaily’s bare-bones set: Haerian and de Mahy sit in chairs representing the Rambler’s two front seats; the puppets perch behind them on black pedestals; and Patrick, Olsen-Ecker, and Rauh stand quietly in back.
There is something mesmerizing about skillful puppetry—were Rebecca, Stephen, and Claire played by real children, no matter how talented, the play would become static. In contrast, a puppet’s slightest gesture carries incredible weight. Under the spell cast by the puppeteers, we are doubly attentive to Vogel’s words, especially as spoken by Haerian, de Mahy, and Aldo Pantoja, who plays an impressive variety of supporting roles, including both grandparents, an anonymous dancer, and a Unitarian Universalist minister whose exaggerated sincerity overwhelms the wisdom of his sermon. Blending seamlessly into this flexible chorus is Eric Lott’s sound design, which conjures everything from Christmas carolers to the aforementioned slap that so painfully transitions the play into its second “act.”
Garrett follows this slap with a sudden blackout, and when the lights return the children have grown into young adults, portrayed no longer by puppets but human actors. It is a bold move by Vogel, so abruptly to transition from one style to another—not merely the sight of flesh and blood over wood, but the sound of extended, intensely personal monologues over third-person narration—and for a moment, I was powerfully moved by the contrast. But the monologues are redundant—first Rebecca, then Claire, and finally Stephen wander the stage to rail against false lovers and contemplate suicide—and the puppets soon reappear, no longer the protagonists but the objects of their desires. The experience of watching Patrick, Olsen-Ecker, and Rauh berate—and in one instance bed—their former selves is exceedingly strange.