BWW Reviews: A THORNTON WILDER CHRISTMAS, The King's Head Theatre, December 18 2012
In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, an (almost too American) American family travel by car to visit the now married (emphasis important) daughter / sister in her new home. Since this is 1931, the car lurches as the clutch engages and tilts as the big steering wheel turns. But there's more than the Model T to suggest the American century to come - the family are amazed by the giant billboards they pass advertising new products, new brands, new dreams (it's a lot like the trip The Simpsons take to Capital City in the celebrated Dancin' Homer episode) and there's fast food and a rebellious teenager too.
Not much happens, but there's just a hint of the growing tension between old religious values and the snowballing mass consumerism. And there's just a hint in the denouement that neither has the answers to the problems that only time can solve.
In the second of two thirty-minute one-act plays, The Long Christmas Dinner, a family sit at the table as a kind of theatrical time-lapse photography jerks us from one decade to the next. Babies are born and, seconds later without even a fade, are fully grown and have children of their own. Men and women stoop as they age, then shuffle off-stage only to be spoken of again as memories. The rituals persevere, even the conversations stay the same (of hearth and home at Christmastide) but joy and sorrow visit the table, as capricious as ever.
With a harder edge than the first play, the second reminds us of how complacent certainties can be whisked away all too quickly, how stable environments may not suit everyone and how transport, wealth and ambition can fracture family ties - to advantage and disadvantage.
Performed on an almost bare stage, with few props (the car in the first and the food in the second are both mimed), Tim Sullivan's stripped down production forces us to concentrate on the interplay between the actors, on how members of these two families ebb and flow towards and away from each other, physically and psychologically. Stephanie Beattie is outstanding in Trenton, bossy and moralistic, desperate for control yet unable to connect with her children when they need her most. Rita Walters is equally good in the second as Lucia, the matriarch who observes and orchestrates the dinners, but secretly (and then not so secretly) hankers to escape.
Just thirty minutes each, the two plays have something of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads about them - brief, intimate insights into outwardly mundane lives, animated by deeper desires, constrained by an unstated and unknowable mores. A third play (there were six written) would not have overstayed Mr Wilder's welcome, but the two offered give the audience much to ponder as the routines of the family Christmas draw closer.