If you've been dozing off during the last few productions at Madison's well-heeled theater locations, The Long Christmas Ride Home offers a caffeine jolt. Playwright Paula Vogel, whose How I Learned to Drive won a Pulitzer Prize, is known for her take on incendiary issues. Christmas Ride is no exception. Billed as a puppet show for adults, it's about gays, lesbians, AIDS, adultery and other facts of contemporary life: a good fit for the non-mainstream Mercury Players Theatre.
A dysfunctional family are crammed into their old Rambler, headed for a disastrous holiday at Grandma's, where there will be recycled gifts, too many drinks and serious generational discord. The psychic wounds the three kids find under the tree are going to haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Not an uncommon story, but this particular bad-Christmas-with-relatives shtick is well above anything ordinary. Vogel has borrowed creatively from Japanese stagecraft to exotic effect, and she's a playwright with a flair for incisive dialogue and poetic imagery. Sets and props are minimal but sufficient, and imaginative video backdrops provide change of scene.
Fortunately there's also enough sly comedy to relieve the inevitable seasonal despair. You can probably imagine a Unitarian Church Christmas Eve service that features slides of Japanese woodcuts, but it really deserves to be seen.
Director Pete Rydberg's unusual cast is a mix of live actors and bunraku-type puppets - those near-life-size Japanese puppets that are manipulated by onstage black-garbed puppeteers. The puppets themselves are a marvel. Designed by Lisa Liebering, the kid puppets look like big floppy rag dolls, but somehow they project innocence, truculence and evil intent. The four manipulators manage to synchronize their movements without being intrusive. Very skillful.
The live cast is almost upstaged by the puppets, but there are accomplished performances in the second half of the play by the actors who portray the kids as adults. Still scarred by their childhood, the three siblings find themselves - both actually and metaphorically - locked out of the "home" at the end of that Long Christmas Ride. Amy Sawyers plays the adult daughter Rebecca, Kathy Lynn Sliter plays Claire, and Ray Ready plays their brother Stephan, dying of AIDS. Ready is electric, and at the end - in a savage, moving monologue - he brings a kind of redemption to them all.