Thornton Wilder muses, "The healthiest ages of the theatre have been marked by the fact that there was the least literally representative scenery." In a series of one-acts penned in the late 1920s, Wilder turned this minimalism to his advantage, creating tales blind to the limitations of time and location - that is to say, tales of the "human experience" in its purest form. A sense of family and personal identity reigns, transcending all theatricality.
Indeed, the simplicity of the Impact Theatre's black box, barely 20 feet wide, was ideal for the presentation of two of these works: The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner.
Happy Journey recounts an afternoon in the life of the Kirby family as they travel from their home in Newark to Camden, New Jersey to visit the family's oldest daughter. On the way, they stop for gas and hotdogs; they marvel at the enormity of the world, and take extreme pride in their own little corner of it; they revel in all things American and sing American songs and say American poems.
Ted Mornel's sharp direction captured the spirit of the work perfectly, and with every gesture or simple prop, an entire tableau was created and in a moment torn down and replaced by new visions of new places. What could have easily become a monotonous ride with your little brother instead had the energy and punch of epic travel.
By far, the highlight of the piece was the portrayal of Ma Kate Kirby by Tina Kay. Coupling a Mother Courage determination with a Carol Channing smile, Kay was the life-force behind the entire voyage. Tamar Stern and Jay Billiet were also lovable as the family's two younger children while Guy Camilleri was stable as the patriarch. Even Nick Rose's unimposing representation of the stage manager (a device Wilder later canonized with Our Town) was adeptly handled; he casually chomped an apple and read the day's Post from his stool in a corner.
But, as Happy Journey breaks free from the confines of locale, The Long Christmas Dinner makes an epic of time, following the Bayard family over 90 years of Christmas meals as if they were all a single and constantly evolving supper. Characters enter and exit as men are born and die; years pass in moments, a looming reminder of the boundaries on human life. "I don't want time to go any faster, thank you," laments one of the play's central figures, instantly a frightening and ironic plea.
This conceit posed a new challenge: each actor had to play her character from adolescence to old age - all in less than 20 minutes of stage time. Here, the Impact Theatre fell short. There was little individuality in each characterization and the weariness of the aging process did not show in the actors' bodies. By the end of the play, the atmosphere had become that of a dirge: a family slowing toward decline, such a different pace than the life and energy of Happy Journey.
Nevertheless, a few performances sparkled, notably Irene Shea's portrayal of weary cousin Ermengarde, the strain of old age ever in her eyes.
The uncredited costumes were well-assembled, although a more minimalist approach, as suggested by Wilder in the script, might have been more appropriate in light of the ever-changing time period.
As a duo, these plays delight with their nostalgia and purity of spirit; the Impact Theatre's presentation, though a little rough around the edges, was sincere and unquestionably enjoyable.
(Also featuring Leah Bosworth, Frank Giaimo, Georgina Kess, Jean Lichty, Elizabeth Malangone, and Keith Thomson.)
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Copyright 1998 Andrew Eggert