By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's when they come of age that the characters engage in that risky, X-rated behavior with some lusty shadow puppets (projected on an upstage screen). It's certainly a first at Stage West to feature silhouetted cunnilingus. Later there is fairly graphic puppet-on-actor anal. Yep, that checks off another box in the critic's "seen it all" inventory.
Puppet fucking aside, The Long Christmas Ride Home does tell a haunting tale about violence, fate and everlasting love. Looking on from the afterlife, Stephen, in a white kimono, takes us back again and again to the car accident that almost claims his entire family. Here Vogel is at her most obvious, placing the car on the edge of a precipice to see how the squabbling family will tip in the face of disaster. The event has profound effects on the characters' future relationships. Each of the children, as a young adult, is seen pleading desperately with an unseen lover. From the street, they shout up to windows, where the shadow puppet exes taunt them with silent rejection.
The uncluttered, Easter-flavored Stage West production has been delicately directed by Jerry Russell. Quiet, affecting performances have been coaxed from his cast, particularly Goldman and Blann, both making their first appearances at this theater. This is deceptively difficult material, given that it's basically a short story spoken aloud in longish monologues, but the actors succeed at keeping the minimalism from being static. In the role of the Unitarian minister who shows erotic Japanese woodcuts at the Christmas service, Ryan Manalansan brings soft humor to his "sermon" and a dancer's grace to his gestures.
Giving the various non-human actors their oomph are additional puppeteers Cassie Bann, Suzanne Fordering, Lark Johnston and Sachin Patel. Way to rock those rods, kids.