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The Long Christmas Ride Home

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Grandmother is off in her own little world, giving the children gifts that she found in the neighbor’s trash.

 

By Paula Vogel
Soundstage Productions
Directed by Sarah Armstrong
Through February 18, 2006

Soundstage Productions has a niche to fill, and fill it they do. The company, founded by husband and wife Randy and Ann Steinbaker, takes a minimalist approach to theater, stripping away the bright lights, fancy costumes, and elaborate sets, instead focusing on the stories at hand. While a staged reading may conjure up images of actors sitting around onstage, barely moving, Soundstage is able to eschew that image and inject its productions with a certain style that makes you forget you’re watching reader’s theater.

Their current production, Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home (which runs 85 minutes with no intermission), is a perfect example of the power that such a reading can muster. The story is told partly in third person as it’s happening by the mother and father—almost as if the actors were reading stage directions (or subtext?)—and partly by monologues by the children, with the occasional spoken lines of the grandparents and a Unitarian Minister. We enter the story in the car on the way to a church service. Husband and Wife (G.P. Hunsaker and Donna Northcott, respectively) set the tone for the show by speaking in hushed and sometimes exasperated voices, and it becomes known that Husband is having an affair and that Wife is aware, causing her to have issues with self-doubt and despondency.

Vogel manages to take a clichéd family arrangement and make it feel unique with her text, and Hunsaker and Northcott do a marvelous job of establishing the tense feeling that will later boil over. The actors playing the children are also just as solid in their roles, both as the children they start out as, and as the adults they become in the second half of the show. Rebecca (Melissa Rae Brown) is the archetype of the eldest sibling, Stephen (Jeremiah Martin) is the middle child, and probably the most conflicted of the three (and of the rest of the family when you get down to it), and Claire (Ember Hyde) is by proxy daddy’s little girl. Each of the three actors playing the children exhibit a quiet desperation that underlies the despondent narration by Northcott and Hunsaker, and imparts a feeling of dysfunction better than any dialogue could.

Prior to visiting the grandparents, the family visits a Unitarian church where the Minister (Robert Ashton) spurs an interest in the children to ask why they’re there. Rebecca pines after “hot” Catholic boys, Claire wants to sing Christmas carols, and Stephen is taken by the mention of far-East spirituality. The Minister’s sermon speaks of the common threads between the many religions of the world, and serves to draw those not of the Christian faith into understanding the stress that this holiday can sometimes bring. Ashton gives a fine reading, juxtaposing calmness against the family’s building tension.

That tension is released in an explosive moment between Husband and his in-laws in the middle of the story. The Grandfather (Steven Clark)—obviously not happy that his daughter married a Jewish man—lets his bigotry shine through after Husband punishes Stephen for accidentally breaking Claire’s new gold bracelet by sending him out to the car during supper. Here is where we see the tensions come to the surface and disrupt what would otherwise have been a merely awkward situation. All the while, Grandmother (Marilyn Bass-Hayes) is off in her own little world, giving the children gifts that she found in the neighbor’s trash. It almost seems as if the personalities of Grandfather and Grandmother, as well as Husband and Wife, are products of their respective marriages. In a seemingly vicious circle, one partner seems to be the cause for the other’s state of mind.

The last part of the story shows how the children have carried their parents’ dysfunction into their adult lives. All three children give monologues—without the use of scripts—to their significant others while being locked outside of their respective homes. The two sisters also brood on the death of Stephen from AIDS, and integrate this feeling of loss into their pleas for their partners to let them in from the cold. Vogel tries to create a profound feeling of loss between the female siblings, with Stephen’s ghost watching over them to ensure that they don’t give up their lives, either by way of suicide (as in Claire’s case), or by simply surrendering to nature (Rebecca). Vogel succeeds—but only to a certain extent. It almost seems like an after-school special in one respect, with the resolutions arriving all too conveniently. Aside from the ending, the script is a fantastic work by Vogel, and Sarah Armstrong’s deft direction and staging carry the material far.

Augmenting the story is a nice, understated set that consists of a few risers and a backdrop that has some of the more poetic lines of the play emblazoned on it. The minimalist set and lights serve the story well, and I would argue that if this play were given the full treatment, it would not contain the gravitas that this presentation had.

If Soundstage Productions are able to keep their staged readings this interesting, I can see many great plays being introduced to St. Louis audiences that might otherwise go unnoticed. Being able to put up shows on a small budget like this increases the accessibility for directors, actors, and producers to be exposed to new and seldom seen plays, and allows us to envision what a full-scale production might be like.

Soundstage Productions presents of Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home through February 18 at HH Studios (2500 Sutton Ave., Maplewood). Tickets are $12, and are available at the box office. Seating is limited, and reservations can be made by calling 314-968-8070. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information on Soundstage Productions, visit their Web site.
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