Christmas on the Rails Near Grover’s Corners, Ohio, 1930

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Pullman Car Hiawatha, The Long Christmas Dinner, Thornton Wilder



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

 Theaters love to find new ways to celebrate Christmas. They turn Christmas movies into plays, produce collections of holiday plays, produce new plays about old characters, such as Dickens’ Tiny Tim, or ask young writers to pen new plays about historic, old Christmases. The Theatre at St. Clements, on West 46th Street, New York, came up with a gem of an idea. They decided to produce two one-act holiday plays by Thornton Wilder set in the Great Depression, The Long Christmas Dinner and Pullman Car Hiawatha, and offer them up as one big, marvelous theatrical Christmas package under the tree.

The dinner drama covers one family’s Christmas get-togethers over 90 years. The Pullman play covers a train ride from New York to Chicago through Ohio just before Christmas Eve in 1930. Both are delicious chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Thornton Wilder is, of course, best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town, that just celebrated its 75th anniversary, The Skin of Our Teeth and others. His one-acters have been pretty much forgotten, but these two, side by side, are right out of the stocking hung on the fireplace for Santa.

The plays, that just opened, are two more examples of Wilder’s remarkable ability to sketch memorable and tender portraits of middle class, middle of the country Americans as they struggle through history. His Americans of the 1930s, very ordinary people, are just like us today with the same hopes and dreams. They go through the same triumphs and tragedies and, no matter what, stick together, especially at Christmas. His plays all start out slow, too, and gradually, minute by minute, seep into your heart and soul.

That is what happens in The Long Christmas Dinner. A young couple in 1840, the Bayards, has just built a new house on land where Native Americans lived just a short time earlier. The couple raise kids, entertain relatives and welcome baby after baby into the world. The family becomes rich and comfortable, but never leaves their house, that grows old as they do. The settlers die off as they age, but they are replaced, and pretty quickly, by the toddlers, constantly wheeled on to the stage in a large baby carriage by a nurse. The family, whose history runs until 1930, has its good moments and its bad ones. Some of the babies die. Some of the adults have lots of troubles, kids battle their parents and each other, relatives come and go. There is always Christmas, though, and the family always gets together, as Americans everywhere always get together. The play is loaded with charm, admirable characters and, through its language and costumes, nicely tells the tale of nearly a century in a rural America that gets crowded and the shifting of the region’s story through the eras. Seven years later, Wilder would use some of these same techniques to write the classic Our Town. He would again use the stage manager as narrator in Our Town, as he does here in the Pullman car story.

Director Dan Wackerman has done a marvelous job of telling a ninety year story in an hour by simply freeze-framing his performers for a few seconds to separate generations and eras. He gets stellar work from an ensemble cast that includes James Beaman, Victoria Blankenship, Jamil Chokachi, Marissa Czyz, Brad Fryman, LaMar Giles, LaWanda Hopkins, Kristin Parker, John Pasha, Jeremy Russial, Barbara Salant, Gael Schaefer, Anna Marie Sell, Rafe Terrizzi, Barbara Wangerd and Giselle Wolf.

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The second play, Pullman Car Hiawatha, tells the tale of a train full of holiday revelers bound for Chicago as it rumbles through the small towns of Ohio. A mentally ill woman boards it with her nurses, but her story is not the focus of the play, as you first suspect. The focus is a middle aged woman and her husband in one of the compartments, trying to get some sleep as passengers make a lot of noise. Wilder tells the stories of many colorful passengers through short bursts of dialogue. There is a man headed for California to see his girlfriend trying to think of a way to do it without looking overly in love with her, which he obviously is. A woman in one of the sleeping berths complains about everything. A man just back from Russia wonders what has changed in America. A doctor is awakened from his slumber by a porter seeking his medical help for a passenger. The always hustling porter is treated badly by many in the passenger car.

All of the stories stop in mid play when the stage manager, who tells the stories, wanders into the audience to get members to read small parts of extra characters in the play. It is not only a wonderful invention, but really expands the scope of the story and, of course, makes instant stars of folks visiting New York from all over the world, who do all they can to make dramatic gestures and create funny lines.

You sit in the audience and really want these people to make to Chicago in good health and as happy holiday revelers, but odd things happen as the Pullman car Hiawatha bounces its way through a jet black night in rural Ohio, accompanied by loud, gritty and just plain wonderful sound tracks f trains charging through the evening.

There is some history in the Pullman car story, but Wilder could have added more. After all, the Great Depression was already a year old when he wrote the play and he might have highlighted some of the emotional angst the people in the Pullman car must have felt over the bad ties America was facing.

Many of the same actors from the dinner story appear in the Pullman car play, led by Lamar Giles as the porter, Michael Sean McGuinness as the stage manager, Anna Marie Sell as the middle aged wife, and Giselle Wolf as the mentally troubled woman.

These two one-acters are surprising Christmas gifts for everybody. Thornton Wilder knew his Americans.

PRODUCTION (for both plays): The plays are produced by the Peccadillo Theater Company. Sets and lighting: Harry Feiner, Costumes: Marianne Custer, Sound Quentin Chiappetta. The plays were directed by Dan Wackerman. They run through January 10.



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