If you know Thornton Wilder only from Our Town and perhaps The Skin of Our Teeth, the two one-act plays comprising the Peccadillo Theater Company‘s new production A Wilder Christmas will feel both familiar and strange.
The Long Christmas Dinner ingeniously traces 90 years in one family’s history through a single continuous scene showing moments from a series of Christmas Day dinners. The avant-garde Pullman Car Hiawatha exposes a God’s-eye snapshot of the passengers in a Pullman sleeper train car chugging from New York to Chicago in 1930. Both plays toy with theatrical conventions in different and unexpected ways, with director Dan Wackerman for the most part letting Wilder’s scripts dictate the action, imagery, and tone, wisely realizing that when the very subject is the passage of time, little updating is needed.
In The Long Christmas Dinner, Wilder fueled a conceptual innovation with conventional language and recognizable character types. Well played here by an excellent cast, and delicately pictured and paced, it uses few words to illustrate deep thought and emotion about life and death and the passage of time. Succeeding family members occupy the head of the Christmas dinner table, as a nurse wheels new babies in through a refulgent archway and elderly relations limp offstage through a dessicated one when their time has come.
Putting down roots in the Midwest around 1840, the Bayard family grows rich and prosperous. But by 1930 the newest generation has left the old homestead for other parts, with only Cousin Ermengarde (Gale Schaefer) left to putter about the house in her old age. Along the way, the actors age their characters through the decades as new generations arrive. The characters losing some of their mental or physical facilities, but retain habits and speech patterns and repeat the same old stories they’ve told and whines they’ve whined all their lives.
From old Mother Bayard’s (Victoria Blankenship) memories of crossing the Mississippi in a raft to young Samuel’s (Jeremy Russial) mustering for World War One to a general decamping for the East Coast, the Bayard clan marches across and off the stage, gathering around the table for their allotted years in between. The ensemble cast enlivens their spot-on staginess with just the right colors of believable emotion, swooshing their story smartly along in Marianne Custer’s eye-catching period costumes.
Pullman Car Hiawatha is something else entirely. This experimental metatheatrical composition takes the passengers on a Pullman car as a jumping-off point to flights of fancy involving audience participation, symbolism, theology, insanity, and the spirit and spirits of the long and newly dead. Filleting his train car like a fish, Wilder exposes the viscera of the passengers’ lives and opens them up to the worlds of space and time the train is passing through.
Those worlds include the town of Grover’s Corners, the setting of Our Town. And they’re narrated by a Stage Manager (Michael Sean McGuinness), like the one in that iconic play. This is patently Wilder’s world, revealed not through scenes of small-town life or era-hopping allegory but through laying bare the id(s) of religion, mythology, and plain old human nature.
The play’s worldview is a bit dated, with a naïve sense of innocence. One line goes something like, “They’re children – they have never suffered.” And I wonder if a treacly scene in which a woman who has just died (Anna Marie Sell) ascends slowly to Heaven, guided by a silent Archangel (Lamar Giles) and saying extended goodbyes to her loved ones, resonated any better in 1931 than it does now.
On the other hand, the play’s structure is so experimental that most of it feels alien, or alienating – and in a modern kind of way. And in any case, staged and played by Peccadillo’s polished cast and creative team with as much precision and sincerity as The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman creates a strange comic-dramatic universe of its own, without overstaying its welcome as avant-garde works sometimes do.
Together, the two one-acts make for an interesting and rewarding holiday-season evening of theater. A Wilder Christmas runs through January 3 at Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th St., Manhattan. Tickets are available online or by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B001YIY2R4][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0007CIHL0][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0062421107][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0785832394][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000B4WST6]