Is there anyone who hasn’t (despite the best of efforts and intentions) had a holiday with the kinfolk turn into a lump of coal right before the first present is unwrapped? With 2009 starting to wind down, what better time to catch a show about what the holidays really mean for a lot of people: being cooped up in an uncomfortable situation with your family.
To that end, Azuka Theatre is starting its 10th-anniversary season with “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” written by award-winning lesbian playwright Paula Vogel, best-known for her unflinching and thought-provoking works like the Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” as well as “The Baltimore Waltz” and “Hot ‘N’ Throbbing.”
Like most of Vogel’s works, “The Long Christmas Ride Home” tackles some weighty issues as a family falls apart during a holiday trip.
“It’s not a Christmas show,” said Kevin Glaccum, Azuka Theatre’s producing artistic director. “It’ll be over by Thanksgiving. It’s not really a take-the-family kind of play. It’s a pretty dysfunctional family. Only half of it takes place on Christmas night. The other half is a flash forward to see the lives of the children in the car as adults. We see what has happened to them as they move on with their lives.”
As if that isn’t enough to pique your interest, Glaccum added that the production uses an ancient and rather intricate form of puppetry to bring to life the past and present of the children riding in the back of the family car.
“In the beginning of the play, when they are young, the children are puppets and their parents are actors,” he said. “Then, when the children are adults, they are actors but the other people in their lives are puppets. [Vogel] was influenced by Japanese theater, a style of theater called Bunraku. It’s pretty involved. She was very inspired by some Japanese theater that she was seeing. It’s this melding of American theater and Japanese theater. The play is greatly based on the playwright’s background. Her brother passed away from AIDS. He was a real lover of all things Japanese. It’s a real homage to him.”
Cast member Keith Conallen said he’s enjoying the experience of working with the puppets.
“It’s a different style of telling stories,” he said. “Having the kids be puppets in the beginning lessens the dramatic load.”
“It gives it a little bit of distance,” Glaccum added. “They’re really lifelike and it’s very touching the way that they are manipulated. I really have become very invested in them, especially as the puppeteering has gotten better.”
Conallen, who plays Stephen, said there are quite a few aspects of his character that resonated with him on a personal level.
“Stephen is the only son of the parents. He has two sisters. He’s the middle child who grows up to be a Japanese enthusiast, which I think also influenced [Vogel’s] writing. The fact that Stephen is a young boy discovering his sexuality and growing up gay, I can certainly relate to that. I didn’t have the family situation that these kids have. My parents weren’t unhappy, that I know of. I can relate to that on a basic level because I was a gay kid and now a gay adult. I can actually relate to Rebecca, too, by being the unnoticed child. I was actually a good kid. I didn’t get into any trouble because I was raised with the fear of God in me. I didn’t really do anything bad, so nobody watched me. It’s kind of like: Look at me, look at me! Maybe it’s why I’m an actor now.”
Glaccum said parental unhappiness is definitely at the core of the tension in “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” as is their inability to relate to each other and their children.
“There is mention of the kids being aware of their parents’ responses to their budding sexuality,” Glaccum said. “The lesbian daughter as a child asks for a six-shooter for Christmas and notices the creases in her mother’s brow when she asks for it. The little boy is very conscious of the fact that he likes to watch other little boys run and knows somehow that it’s bad and he shouldn’t, but he’s not sure why. And the parents are unhappy with one another — that is the root of their dysfunction and the unhappiness with the family.”
Like Conallen, Glaccum also said he found characters that he could relate to personally, especially the parents, in the play.
“[My father], as he got older, he got better, but he definitely had no idea how to raise a gay kid. Stephen gets a soccer ball for Christmas and he’s like, ‘I have no idea what I’m to do with this.’ His parents don’t know who he is. I definitely related to that. Plus, there’s the fact that there’s an HIV/AIDS component to it. Gay men of a certain age who lived through the 1980s and early ’90s, there are a lot of ghosts that follow you around. So this play pays homage to that.“
Both Conallen and Glaccum said the lack of warm and fuzzy feelings in the lives of these children has a positive effect, as it strengthens their relationships later in life.
“That’s the best part,” Conallen said. “The kids have such a close relationship. The way that they have grown up, their ties are event tighter than they were as children because of what happens in that long Christmas ride.”
“There’s this sense of familial comfort that you can find even amidst a family falling apart,” Glaccum added. “These siblings really bond because of it and bond for eternity. It’s like war stories. There’s nothing like two soldiers being in the same trench that bonds them for life. Children of dysfunctional families are bonded in the way that happy children just aren’t.”
But what about the people in the audience who have never had a dysfunctional holiday experience? Will they be able to relate to this crumbling family?
“Are there people like that?” Glaccum responded with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know anybody who had an idyllic childhood. So maybe it would be unimaginable to some of those people that a Christmas would result like this and have the long-lasting ramifications that this one particular night had on this family.”
Conallen said that despite the lack of a traditional happy resolution, he hopes audiences will come away from the show with a sense of peace.
“That idea that having that kind of turmoil ... who knows what is going on in anybody’s life. I’m hoping that it allows people to open up and realize things can get better. That’s one [thing I hope people take away from this show]. Number two: Very simply, don’t take your family for granted. Number three: Don’t hate your gay kids. An audience is going to react the way they react. I can only hope they come away with something, whatever it is.”
Glaccum said he just wants the audience to connect with the characters, human or puppet.
“One of the main reasons I picked this play, and all of the plays that Azuka does, is I love the sense of the audience being able to see themselves on stage, no matter how they interpret it. There’s a factor in the characters that will touch you. So whether you are gay or straight, you’ve been to a Christmas that has been not pretty with people fighting. It wasn’t this wonderful holiday that everybody looks forward to every year. I think we have a sense of recognition, maybe not the exact events that take place. You make that connection and that will help you take away what the playwright is trying to give — this sense of peace and the humanness of us all.”
Azuka Theatre presents “The Long Christmas Ride Home” through Nov. 15 at Mandell Theater, 3300 Chestnut St. For more information, visit www.azukatheatre.org or call (215) 733-0255.