Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Dan Wackerman
Featuring James Beaman, Victoria Blankenship, Merissa Czyz, Brad Fryman, LaMar Giles, LaWanda Hopkins, Michael Sean McGuinness, Kristin Parker, John Pasha, Jeremy Russial, Barbara Salant, Gael Schaefer, Anna Marie Sell, Rafe Terrizzi, Barbra Wengerd and Giselle Wolf
Before OUR TOWN won him a Pulitzer (and a place on the syllabi of countless grade schools), Thornton Wilder experimented with shorter, meta- theatrical pieces that chronicled the changing social landscape of the early 20th Century. As this opulent, if uneven revival proves, Wilder was deeply attuned to the rhythms of a society in which automobiles, railroads and factories energized the national self-image while simultaneously trampling over tradition and increasing the geographical and ideological distances between generations.
Said to have influenced the famed breakfast table scene in “Citizen Kane”, THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER telescopes 90 years in the life of the prosperous Bayard family into 35 minutes. The setting remains fixed, but the shifting mood and carriage of the characters indicates that significant blocks of time have elapsed between scenes. The first holiday banquet takes place in an optimistic, frontier America, where Mother Bayard recalls a time when Indians lived on the land that now contains the house. A few Christmases later, her son Roderick has launched a successful business. He and his wife Lucia soon have children, Charles and Genevieve. As death (represented by a luminous gate at upstage) inevitably claims some family members, Charles grows into manhood, takes over the Bayard firm and marries his sweetheart Leonora, while Genevieve struggles to find a purpose in life. As a new generation rises, modern warfare, college education, and Jazz Age innovation replace the staid life of a small town and family business. The young depart for brighter prospects and the house grows colder and emptier, a relic of an era of simpler aspirations.
PULLMAN CAR HIAWATHA turns the microcosm of a Chicago-bound sleeper car into a spiritual journey. Like OUR TOWN, the play is narrated by a Stage Manager who interacts with the public, even calling on audience members to read passages of poetry and history. The passengers and staff of the locomotive represent a cross section of society, each lost in a personal reverie. One woman pores over her Christmas gift list, a doctor peruses a medical journal, a regular guy reads a pulp fiction magazine, a mentally ill woman is calmed by her nurse, etc. One of the travelers, Harriet, falls ill as she rests in a separate cabin from her husband. The doctor is urgently summoned, but to no avail. As she passes into the afterlife, figures from the Bible and Greek mythology attend Harriet’s final judgment. Looking down on the heartland from up above, Harriet sees at last the meaning that was there all along, easy to miss as she rushed through life. The infinite resides in the minutiae of daily existence.
Visually, the production is topnotch. Marianne Custer’s costumes, Nelly Reyes’s prop designs and Harry Feiner’s scenic and lighting design evoke the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and others who, like Wilder, saw nobility and promise in America’s fecund fields, booming industries and determined citizenry. Quentin Chiappetta’s lyrical music and sound design eases the show’s transitions of time and space. Director Dan Wackerman effectively blends the ethereal with the commonplace in HIAWATHA. He is less successful in THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER, which, despite its title, feels a bit rushed. The actors nail the technical aspects, such as the period accents and the physicality of aging, but rarely get the opportunity to breathe within their roles. The audience would be better able to invest emotionally in the fates of the characters if they would linger in their struggles long enough for us to get to know them.
A WILDER CHRISTMAS continues through January 10, 2016 at the Theater at St. Clements, 423 W 46th St (at 9th Avenue), New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/2772