Playwright Paula Vogel spends more time in a car than a taxi driver. She won her 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for How I Learned To Drive, the lyrical, economical story of a young girlís liaison with the uncle who taught her, among other things, to handle an automobile. Now, in her first play in five years, the haunting The Long Christmas Ride Home, which is getting its world-premiere production at Trinity Rep, she puts yet another unhappy family in a Rambler for a metaphorical journey that blends the influences of Thornton Wilder and Japanese noh. Throw in Vogelís own savage whimsies and you have a potentially exquisite contemplation of the childhood roots of personality, dysfunction, and heartbreak in which past and future, East and West, actors and puppets share the stage.
Inspired by the short plays of Thornton Wilder, including The Long Christmas Dinner and Happy Journey to Trenton, as well as by the final act of Our Town, Vogelís intermissionless tragi-comedy begins in the 1950s, on a miserable, pivotal car ride to and from Grandmaís house for Christmas dinner. In the front are hostile parents Ray (a bitter philanderer) and Kate. In back are the children, precocious Rebecca, sensitive Stephen, and daddyís tomboy Claire, in the form of lifesize bunraku puppets manipulated by the actors who will later play the children as adults and by masked black-clad puppeteers. Clad in their Sunday best, the puppets, the creations of Basil Twist, are remarkably lifelike, their faces little masks of sorrow, elation, apprehension, and bewilderment.
Relating the shattering events of this family Christmas, " years and days ago, " the parents narrate each otherís sins and grudges, often in deftly heightened language; the puppet children alternately swat at one another and soar in holiday reverie, anticipating turkey and presents and " disappointment. " On the way home, after the party has ended in hostilities, a moment of violence results in the carís leaving the road to rest perilously above a creek bed. In an agonized moment of suspended time, the three children are then hurtled into the pained, disconnected futures for which their wounded childhood is preparing them. It is here that the play, like the car, spins a bit out of control, only to return, at the end, to a beautiful coda that echoes both the dead Emilyís realization in Our Town and the mantra of the Grandma of Vogelís play that " itís amazing what people throw away. "
In the second half of the play, in three brief, melodramatic scenarios, each grown sibling finds himself shut out by a rejecting lover. Rebecca, who never wanted children, is pregnant by her live-in boyfriendís best friend. Claire, abandoned by her lesbian love, is suicidal. And Stephen has died of AIDS willfully contracted through unsafe sex on the rebound, in the back room of a biker bar. These arguably clichéíd dramas, luridly sketched, are themselves daringly enhanced by the use of puppets (including naked lesbians making love in a lighted window), their part of the dialogue supplied in abstract blats by on-stage musician Sumie Kaneko on a long-necked Japanese string instrument called the samisen.
The use of Eastern philosophy and artistry is, for the most part, ingeniously incorporated into The Long Christmas Ride Home, from the flashback to the Unitarian Universalist Christmas Eve service that begins Stephenís lifelong fascination with things Japanese to the music and puppets. At the core is the Buddhist belief in " ukiyo, " " the floating world, " in which the ephemera of life is both acknowledged and celebrated (joy in the world as opposed to " Joy to the World, " as the UU minister puts it). Toward the end, as the dead Stephen explains the presence of " the ancestors " breathing among us, there is also an Asian-influenced dance sequence by electrifying actor-dancer Seán Martin Hingston, though it was unclear to me whether meant to represent Stephen or the love of Stephenís life.
Whatever its flaws, The Long Christmas Ride Home is a stunning stage piece, theatrical and tender, and Oskar Eustisís expert Trinity production, developed with Vogel, is a proud accomplishment. To my mind, there remains work for Vogel to do in the second half of the play, to tone down the formulaic, overwrought, and repetitive elements of the flash-forwards. But the saga of the forlorn and angry nuclear family, and of the puppet siblings in particular, joined like OíNeillís Tyrones by old sorrows and unbreakable " strands of flesh, " is original and unerring. Vogelís ambitious, impossible notion to fuse her Rambler with a Toyota was worth waiting five years for.