A seasoned script evaluator quickly learns to discern between plays that are merely good and those that deserve to be produced and seen by an audience. Having read playwright Paula Vogel’s “The Long Christmas Ride Home” three years ago, fresh out of her printer and making the regional rounds, I thought then that it was a play that deserved to be seen. After experiencing Next Theatre’s emotionally taut and deeply felt production, I still do. The play, relating the tale of an emotional and arduous car ride for a family of five on Christmas Eve and the lasting psychological repercussions decades later, is beautiful in its craft: a confluence of traditional Western storytelling and Eastern Japanese Doll theater traditions. From the metallic-sounding pluck of a Japanese stringed-instrument to shadow puppets against striking pastel washes to the ethereal and almost life-sized Bunraku puppets (manipulated by actors and puppeteers) that play the children, the play’s parade of elements serves to evoke and enhance Vogel’s typically sharp dialogue, as well as raise the familiar, dysfunctional domestic play to new therapeutic and contemplative heights. Yet despite these pockets of theatrical ingenuity, and perhaps in deference to the frosty material, director Jason Loewith has audaciously given this dark play an even darker production with a shadowy, antiseptic blue look and a solemn feel that may keep some viewers at arm’s length. It’s not an easy ride to take, but those into the soul’s battered landscape usually are not. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Next Theatre, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, (847)475-1875. Thu 7:30pm/Fri – Sat 8pm/Sun 2pm. No perfs 11/24-25. $20-$35. Through Dec 11.