Among Paula Vogel’s many gifts as a playwright is the ability to encompass a world of opposites simultaneously: her language swings seamlessly from highbrow to low, from sacred to profane, from the abstract to the all-too-human. The Long Christmas Ride Home, which debuted at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company in May, would be unbearably tragic were it not for her deeply comic insight that we are saved by something as absurd and ephemeral as flesh.
In the program notes, Vogel pays homage to Thornton Wilder’s revival of noh, a stylized form of Japanese drama and dance. She draws not only from noh, but also from another Japanese form of drama, bunraku, in which masked puppeteers manipulate life-size puppets playing the main characters. Basil Twist, who is currently working with Mabou Mines on an opera, designed bunraku puppets for this production. Serenely beautiful, their pale faces and gestures seem to emote. Trinity’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, and the stage- and lighting crews have created a starkly beautiful minimalist set: the actors and puppets inhabit a pristine white slab, while behind them a crumpled scrim is washed with images of the moon, paper lanterns, clouds, gently falling snow. To one side a woman plays the shamisen, a lutelike instrument with a ghostly sound.
The drama begins on an icy Christmas day in 1953. A philandering and self-pitying man and a woman who is debating whether to get pregnant again or to have an affair of her own drive to church with their three children, represented by puppets handled by the actors who will later play them as adults. “I can’t think in this family. I can’t breathe,” fumes the father. “I’m going to puke,” announces ten-year-old Stephen in the back .
They are heading to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rock Creek, Maryland (mother’s a lapsed Catholic; father’s an acculturated Jew). There, the minister quickly dispenses with Christmas (“Jesus met the women at the well, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera”). He lectures instead on Edo-period woodcuts of “the floating world,” ukiyo. While a slide of a “working girl” glows on the screen above him, Vogel’s minister tells his congregation, “The Buddha taught that the flesh is ephemeral. Why not embrace what will only too soon be gone?”
“Did the Virgin Mary work?” asks seven-year-old Claire.
“No, she stayed at home—like your mother,” her mother replies tartly.
Later, at the grandparents’ apartment, “the children played and jabbed and strangled each other,” the narrator recounts. A charm bracelet breaks, and the father kicks Stephen and calls him a pansy ass. The grandfather calls the father a kike, and the two men flail drunkenly at each other. On the ride home the woman snaps at her husband, “Well, what a lovely Christmas you’ve given me!” When he goes to slap her, the car spins out of control and lands on the edge of a ravine. There the family teeters as the puppeteers take on the roles of the children grown up, chronicling the psychic wreckage of that night. Each spurned in turn by a lover, they spiral into self-destruction.
This might be just another modern-day tale of family dysfunction were it not for Stephen, who is permanently changed by the floating world he glimpses that night in church. After dying of AIDS, he returns as a ghost to hold his grieving sisters. “One only becomes flesh through flesh,” he says.
The Long Christmas Ride Home revisits themes Vogel raised in her earlier plays— family sins, grief, and above all survival. The Baltimore Waltz, about her brother’s death from AIDS, won three Obie awards in 1992. How I Learned to Drive, which is about incest, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
But those are simpler plays. Here, Vogel veers from the horrific to the elegiac with split second timing. The result is uneven at times but haunting. Rejected by his lover, Stephen has sex in a bar, with a life-size puppet wearing motorcycle leather. The virus courses through him in a scene that is physically painful to witness . Then later, the puppet Stephen relives the fateful car ride, embracing his sisters and quieting their distress (and the audience’s) with grace and tenderness. This is ultimately a play about love.
Vogel suggests that it not be performed in November or December. It relies on perspective to achieve its emotional impact, and that power only increases with distance, resonating more and more over time.
Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.