note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Offering alternative fare to the holiday season, Salem Theatre Company (STC) has chosen a controversial, hard-hitting drama, which starts off cleverly and typically, with a familyís snow-driven, icy ride to church, then to grandparentsí house on Christmas Eve, that rapidly descends into disaster. The one-act production thatís set at Christmastime, 1970, in the small, black box theater, surrounded by the audience on three sides, quickly intensifies through the parentsí and childrenís stream of consciousness, as ice crackles under the carís tires, the children poke and bicker, and son Stephen gets increasingly car sick. The parents (Nancy Gahagan and Stephen Cooper) are locked in their own thoughts: the shiksa wife, who knows her Jewish husband is having multiple affairs, but especially with a member of their non-sectarian, Unitarian Universalist Church, with whom he is totally smitten. The children - Julie Becker portraying Claire, the youngest and dadís golden girl; Linda Goetz as Rebecca, the eldest who is daydreaming about cute boys; and Jacob Strautmann, who superbly portrays Stephen, whom dad disparagingly calls a pansy, or mamaís boy, wear designer Jean Fogleís white masks and childlike puppet bodies. A monitor above the cast projects icy, snow-covered roads as sound-lighting designer Ryan Robbins injects screeching tires, shifting gears, coupled with dramatic, moody lighting effects. Nostalgic musical interludes between scenes are also effective, especially during time changes from Christmastime 1970; 25 years later, in 2000; 24 years later, in 1999; doubling back to 1990, 15 years after the opening scene, then returning to the beginning. The monitor relates each time change, fast-forwarding and signaling each childís future as they doff their masks and puppet clothing, revealing them as troubled adults in troubling situations. Rounding out this talented cast are Susan Fader as the grandmother/puppeteer and Brian Casey as ďCaveĒ man/ puppeteer. Sensitive child Stephen is entranced by an unctuous, alternative ministerís slides of Japan, showing the art,beauty, spirituality - and oops, wrong slide - sexuality - of the ancient Japanese. Cliff Blake is caricaturish as grandfather and later as the alternative minister at church. Events take a powerful turn during a destructive scene in which the father and grandfather, (his goyische Catholic father-in-law, who calls him a kike) escalate a shouting match into fisticuffs, smashing the family crystal, overturning the dinner table, and making a hasty exit. As Dad has visions of his paramour, Sheila Jackson, dancing in his head, and his wife thinks of ways to save their marriage, she inadvertently mutters a slam, and he reacts by slapping her, driving erratically and sending the family perched on the edge of a precipice, precariously balanced between life and death. Vogel heaps irony on irony as each adult childís significant future Christmas nights appear repetitive but differ vastly. Most moving is Stephenís story, as he appears and evanesces, like a guiding angel, to save his sisters, and relate his own sad tale. There are no ballerinas, no dancing teddy bears, dashing-through-the-snow sleigh rides or redemption here - just a gut-wrenching tale of a family for whom Christmastime is no trek to toyland or happy ending, but a powerfully realistic side trip to the downside of the season.
BOX INFO: One-act play written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Paula Vogel, directed by John Fogle, appearing through Dec. 19 with the Salem Theatre Company (STC), 90 Lafayette St., Salem. Showtimes are Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Tickets are $22; seniors, $18; students 18-older, $12. Adult material not recommended for under 18. Call 978-790-8546, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.salemtheatre.com or the Box Office.