Readers' theater, where actors tend to sit at music stands and read a play, can be a highly engaging form. The works of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams indeed, any playwright who loves language can benefit from this laser approach. Other shows, like A.R. Gurney's popular Love Letters, were written specifically with readers' theater in mind. But Soundstage, a modest community theater troupe that is seeking enhanced visibility, has chosen a curious script as its inaugural professional offering.
At first glance Vogel's memory play about a disastrous Christmas gathering in the distant past might seem ideally suited to readers' theater. A few chairs can stand in for the old Rambler in which the family takes its long ride. So yes, we're able to focus on what's being said. But as it turns out, the dialogue is only a part of this play's equation. The original off-Broadway version three years ago made imaginative use of puppets, slide projections and Japanese theater techniques, all of which not only were integral to telling the story, but ultimately were the story. Remove them from the mix, and a viewer might not be left with enough of the play's essential dynamics to fairly evaluate The Long Christmas Ride Home.
What's here is interesting, as far as it goes. Father and Mother and their three kids, aged seven to twelve, are en route to what will prove a wretched family reunion. At a Christmas church service, they hear a homily delivered by a minister just back from Japan. His fascination with the "floating world" provides the motif for an evening of floating words. (Even the backdrop, a wall of elegant graffiti containing random phrases and lines from the script, effectively plays into this notion of floating.) But remove the puppets that stand in for the children and eliminate the Bunraku staging, and it's just possible that the dialogue by itself will be insufficient to saying something original and complete.
Nevertheless, the production, directed by Sarah Armstrong, does its best to make the most of what remains. G.P. Hunsaker brings a bullwhip energy to Father, who "can't breathe in this family." Just as he steers the car, Hunsaker also steers the production. He and Donna Northcott as Mother find the rhythm and pace that drive the play forward. But then, just as the script seems to be cruising down the highway, Vogel throws in a precariously sharp curve.
The production notes tell us that the car "spins out of control" and the three kids "are hurled into the future." Although the fusion of spinning and hurling is tough to grasp in a readers'-theater staging, it soon becomes clear that the intermissionless play has leaped ahead in time by at least a decade. Now the music stands and scripts are pretty much left behind. The play changes mood and embarks upon a series of mostly memorized, staged monologues. Readers' theater gets pushed aside by the tracings of a full production. We learn that twelve-year-old Rebecca (Melissa Rae Brown) will grow up to become pregnant and abandoned; seven-year-old Claire (Ember Hyde) will become a jilted, lonely lesbian; nine-year-old Stephen (Jeremiah Joseph Martin) will move to San Francisco and die too young of AIDS. Alas, these lengthy monologues are so repetitive as to become enervating. A viewer is almost relieved to get back into the car and Father's rantings.
Ultimately, admirers of Paula Vogel might find more to appreciate here than will those who find her plays overwritten and undernourished. But even those who do not usually warm to Vogel's scripts might agree on this irony: that although the readers' theater form usually succeeds by giving us less, this staging of The Long Christmas Ride Home leaves us wanting more.