The Long Christmas Ride Home coverage

Second in a two-part series of Reviews too Late to do You Any Good, here’s my take on the Studio Theatre‘s The Long Christmas Ride Home.

My darling girlfriend and I caught the evening showing on a Saturday, the day before closing. Billed as “a puppet show with actors,” it exceeded our expectations. Partly that was because we had turned a bit of a gimlet eye at the whole production – given that it gave first billing to the puppets – so it was the beneficiary of low expecations. It was also a function of it being an interesting production, however. The ninety-minute no-intermission play contains scenes with the adult children Stephen, Rebecca, and Claire mid-play which are bracketed at the beginning and end by scenes with the puppets.

The opening and closing bits with the puppet children and their human-acted parents worked somewhat surprisingly well. The puppets are manipulated not only by the actors playing their adult selves – Kevin Bergen as Stephen, Tonya Beckman Ross as Rebecca, and Kate Debelack as Claire – but by up to two additional puppeteers, depending on the action at hand. The puppeteers are head-to-toe clad in black, including masks, but their presence is never distracting. In part that’s because of their excellent economy of movement, but much of the credit has to go to Laura Gianarelli and Paul L. Nolan as the parents. Both are compelling and deliver their parts superbly with Nolan being the real standout. Bergen, Ross and Debelack don’t have a lot of time to shine since all the dialog in the opening length is spoken by Gianarelli and Nolan in a narration style. So we effectively first hear from them at the midpoint when they emerge as their full-grown adult selves.

The only place I felt like the show fell down was in some of the heavy material in the middle about Stephen’s life. Bergen delivers it as well as possible, but it’s weighty in a manner that seems hard to take in the second half of this decade. A play that turns on a brother’s contracting and dying of AIDS just feels very ten-years-ago. Apparently the work is strongly auto-biographical so Vogel’s inclusion of it is understandable as personal storytelling, but I don’t know how well it speaks to a modern audience. Just because one of us has a story to tell doesn’t necessarily mean it’s one anyone else is interested in hearing, or capable of taking something away from.

That reads a little harsher than I mean it, but so much of the family’s relationship works so well on its own that I didn’t feel like we needed an extended treatise on why Stephen might be a little reckless and contract HIV. He’s a lost sibling who was looking for love in a bad way and whose lingering death impacted his sisters. Sometimes details detract from the larger picture rather than add to it.

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