Genevieve de Mahy (left) and Kaveh Haerian in Single Carrot… (Handout photo, Baltimore…)
A family of five sets off on a snowy day in a Rambler with snow chains on the tires. While the kids in the back seat deal with petty concerns and car sickness, the parents reflect on the directions their lives are taking inside and outside of their marriage.
All is far from calm and bright on "The Long Christmas Ride Home," Paula Vogel's remarkable play, which has been given a penetrating production from Single Carrot Theatre.
No one in the car — the ride is vividly evoked in the simplest of means — has to ask, "Are we there yet?" Perhaps deep down, all of them, even the children, sense they will never really arrive at the same place emotionally, at least not in one piece.
Sure enough, when the family does reach the home of the wife's parents, presents aren't the only things unwrapped. Psyches are laid bare, along with resentments, fears and doubts.
Directed with a deft touch by Jessica Garrett, the staging provides a particularly impressive example of what the inventive Single Carrot Theatre can do. The set (J. Buck Jabaily), costumes (Heather C. Jackson) lighting (Nathan Fulton) and sound (Eric Lott) all combine to serve the material strongly.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Vogel writes in a style that can be both natural and poetic. She gets easily to the heart of issues that affect most families at one time or another, in one way or another.
Even her most personal imprint on the script — the memory of her brother, lost to AIDS, a memory that runs through several of her plays — has a universal reach and sting.
In the first part of "The Long Christmas Ride Home," Vogel incorporates bunraku, the Japanese art of puppetry; puppets, manipulated by actors, depict the children. I know what some of you are thinking: No, no, anything but puppets. Put those fears aside. Vogel knows what she's doing. The device proves remarkably effective.
Constructed by Don Becker and Eric Brooks, the puppets convey just enough detail without ever getting cutesy. The face on the boy is particularly revealing, with an expression that only barely conceals all the secret longings and worries inside him.
Those puppet-children are smoothly animated by Britt Olsen-Ecker as the spoiled Claire, Amy Parochetti Patrick as the cynical Rebecca and Elliott Rauh as the gentle Stephen. The players, especially the subtly affecting Rauh, also do telling work when the play flashes forward and they assume the adult forms of the siblings.
As the parents, identified only as Man and Woman, Kaveh Haerian and Genevieve de Mahy demonstrate equally incisive nuances revealing the couple's conflicts and dreams.
In a clever, amusing scene, Aldo Pantoja adds a good deal of spice as the oddball minister at a Unitarian Universalist Church during a service attended by the family (the mother is "a lapsed Catholic," the father "an assimilated Jew"). Pantoja also appears as a dancer in a more problematic passage near the end of the play, a flight of fancy that doesn't quite work.
But the occasional dry patch is easily forgotten in light of the cumulative expressive power of this unusual and touching play, and the eloquent, unaffected way Single Carrot Theatre delivers it.
If you go
"The Long Christmas Ride Home" runs through April 17 at Single Carrot Theatre, 120 W. North Ave. $15-$20. Call 443-844-9253 or go to singlecarrot.com