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.