“Wilder Times” at the Aurora

Dave and I saw Wilder Times at the Aurora Theatre several nights ago, thanks to a bring-some-canned-food-for-charity-and-pay-what-you-can offer (because we are really, really broke this month). Dave and I particularly wanted to see it because we’re big fans of Barbara Oliver, who directed, and of Stacy Ross, who is in the cast. So we were very glad of the opportunity, and I’m glad to say that we had a great time.

It’s a wonderful production, a collection of four one-acts by Thornton Wilder. The only one that I’d ever seen before, or even heard of before, was “The Long Christmas Dinner”. That was the last of the four plays, and probably the highlight of the evening, but all four plays were interesting and inventive and funny. Wilder had a great gift for evoking large ideas through a simple story and plain, folksy dialogue. The acting and direction were a lovely match for Wilder’s writing — simple and spare, yet full of all kinds of delightful and telling details.

The first half consists of “Infancy” and “Childhood”, two plays from a cycle of seven that Wilder was planning on the Seven Ages of Man (it seems he only finished four of them). I was particularly taken by “Childhood”, in which three children play at a strange fantasy, at times very ordinary and at times surreal, both whimsical and troubling, about becoming orphans, leaving home, and taking a bus trip to China. (Getting valid bus tickets is an obstacle. The Mississippi River is another.) The trip has its own strange dream logic, with a bus driver who reminds the children of their father and a mysterious veiled passenger in the back who resembles their mother. Of the four plays, this is the one that had me most wanting to see it a second time, just for another chance to sort out the feelings it brought up in me.

The second half consists of “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” and “The Long Christmas Dinner”. “The Happy Journey” is probably the slightest piece of the four, a very simple story about a family of four on a drive to visit relatives; very little happens, but watching the family dynamics at work held my interest all the same, and the gentle little story becomes moving by the end.

“The Long Christmas Dinner” is, I think, fairly well-known. Ninety years in the history of a family pass during the course of one Christmas dinner; adults grow older and die, young people join the table and grow up in their turn, all while turkey is being carved and wine is being poured and people say the same old things they’ve said at all their Christmases.

I have ambivalent feelings about this play, because in my childhood Christmas dinner was always hellish. There were three hellish days every year for me when I was a kid, actually, the others being Easter and Thanksgiving. We got together at these times with my mother’s parents and sister, and later with my aunt’s husband and children as well (that’s all the family I ever knew much of; my father was estranged from the rest of his family, and most of my mother’s family were killed in the Holocaust), and every one of these holidays I had no choice but to be there and listen to people saying the very same cruel things to each other and having the very same bitter quarrels that they had said and had every holiday for as long as I could remember. So I can vouch to the persistence of family traditions, but the subject of Christmas is still a sore spot for me all these decades later, and as much as I enjoy the more benign forms of family dysfunction that are on display in “The Long Christmas Dinner”, it’s a hard play for me to give myself up to wholeheartedly. There’s always a part of me holding back, thinking, “Oh, you people have no idea!”

Still, it’s a beautifully staged and acted production of a great one-act play. Stacy Ross is wonderful, as she usually is, but so is the rest of the cast.

The publicity photo at the top is a moment from “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” in which the family stops at a filling station along the way. Brian Tryborn is the station attendent, Stacy Ross in the back seat talking to him is the mother, Søren Oliver in the driver’s seat is the father, and Heather Gordon and Patrick Russell are the children. I love the expressions on the kids’ faces in this one, as the grownups chat pleasantly about nothing much.

“Absolutely Pointless”

I didn’t finish this Friday’s Listener crossword, “Absolutely Pointless” by Waterloo, until Monday — figuring out the last two clues and filling the last two cells in the grid during my midmorning break — despite having had Friday off work. Partly because I also had a lot of other things I wanted to get done on Friday, but partly just because it was a very tough puzzle.

The idea is that answers can be entered into the grid in any of the eight compass directions, not just across and down. What’s more, an answer can change direction one or more times. The answer can start in any direction, but whenever the letters N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, or NW occur in the word, corresponding to the points on a compass, those letters are not entered (making the grid “pointless”) and the rest of the word continues in that direction (which is usually but not necessarily a change in direction). For example, MOONWALK might be entered as

K
L M
A O
O

or perhaps as

K
L
A
M O O

The instructions, I thought, were much too terse, and I guess I should give a spoiler alert here in case you are working on the puzzle, because I’m about to write about what, as a former puzzle editor, I feel the instructions should have covered. No clue answers will be spilled or hinted at, however.

The very brief instructions left me with the first impression that entries were going to snake through the grid, possibly changing direction with every letter even where there wasn’t a compass direction to fix what that direction was. It wasn’t long before I saw that if that were true, the puzzle was unlikely to have a unique solution (not without a lot more clues), so I decided to solve with the tentative assumption that an entry couldn’t change direction except where it contained a compass direction, figuring that if that wasn’t the case I would bump up against an impossibility soon enough. I never hit a contradiction, so that was the right assumption to make, but there are probably any number of alternate “solutions” possible without that assumption, and as far as I can see they would be valid according to a not unreasonable interpretation of the instructions.

It would have been nice, too, if the instructions had mentioned that each entry contains at least one compass direction and may contain more than one, that not every compass direction causes a change in direction (when the entry is already heading in that direction), and that an entry may therefore change direction once, more than once, or not at all. These are less crucial pieces of information, as you eventually figure out in the solving that these things have to be true or no solution is possible. But it would have made the puzzle easier to get a handle on if they’d been spelled out.

Worst of all, the instructions did not mention that a single entry may go through the same letter in the grid more than once. BORNEO, for example, might be entered as

B
O
R

This was the omission that really annoyed me, because I figured the natural assumption would be that reusing the same letter is not OK, and that therefore they’d surely mention it if it was, and as a result I eventually reached a point where it was impossible to enter all the answers I’d gotten so far, and I had to scrap my first grid and start over with a fresh copy. Bah humbug. I like a tough puzzle, but I’m not so hot on making a puzzle tougher by making the solver guess at what its rules are. And this puzzle was tough enough as it was!

Other than the frustratingly uninformative instructions, though, I thought this was a fine puzzle. I’ve read some criticism online of the fact that it doesn’t end with any kind of surprise — no hidden phrase appearing in the completed grid, no quotation by Lewis Carroll being spelled out somewhere, that sort of thing. But I don’t see why every Listener puzzle needs to be like that. This was a good and enjoyable challenge, if a very tough one.