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Theatre in Review: The Great Divorce/A Wilder Christmas)

(Top) Joel Rainwater, Christa Scott-Reed, and Michael Frederic in The Great Divorce. Photo: Joan Marcus. (Bottom) Giselle Wolf, Brad Fryman Barbra Wengred, and John Pasha in A Wilder Christmas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It never occurred to me that people don't get into heaven not because God condemns them but because they can't stand the prospect of it. Oddly, I heard this point being made twice in two days, as I experienced a pair of back-to-back productions focused on cosmic matters.

The first, The Great Divorce, produced by Fellowship for Performing Arts at the Pearl Theatre, isn't, strictly speaking, a drama at all. It's adapted from a book by the novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, and it offers the author's speculative vision of what the afterlife might look like.

The narrator (Joel Rainwater, costumed to look like a youngish version of Lewis) finds himself in a hellish "grey town" where he boards a bus for heaven. On arrival, he and his fellow traveling companions discover that they are transparent shades of their former selves, and that walking on the grass -- Paradise is depicted, through projections, as a kind of stunning green countryside -- is extremely painful.

Lewis has some amusing and thought-provoking surprises up his sleeve. For one thing, he makes very clear that the saved do not necessarily include the most obviously pious among us. One of the first heavenly greeters is a woman who committed murder while alive. She laughs it off, saying it was nothing more than the act of a moment's passion, adding that she did much worse things in life. However, a man who employed her is so upset at what, to him, is a miscarriage of divine justice that he ferociously rejects this judgment and immediately starts thinking about returning to earth. That he clings tenaciously to his own sense of rectitude cuts no ice here. Another woman believes that her extreme devotion to her son is proof positive of her goodness; instead, she is unmasked as a monster of egotism who made a god out maternal devotion. As one of the greeters points out to the narrator, heaven is nothing more than reality; as soon as one accepts this, one may enter into it.

Such arguments prove engaging, and the author's way with words is present when one of the characters remarks that, having arrived in this strange place, their bodies have become "man-shaped stains on the surface of the air." But The Great Divorce is really a tract disguised as a novel; there is a distinct absence of drama here, and one begins to long for it. It turns up very occasionally, most notably in a sequence in which a middle-aged wife who, having in life applied such doses of right-thinking propriety to her husband that she drove him to a nervous breakdown, intends to continue the process as her divine duty. She is slowly disabused of her illusions, a process is beautifully handled by Christa Scott-Reed, who nails the character, down to the last detail, including the sibilant "s" with which she pronounces the word "Christian," as if examining a piece of fine china. (Rounding out the cast is Michael Frederic, who delivers an assured performance.)

More damagingly, the director, Bill Castellino, has outfitted the production with an excess of technology. Kelly James Tighe's scenic design, depicting a meadow, Michael Gilliam's sensitive, ever-changing lighting, and Nicole Wee's costumes, are all fine achievements. But Jeffrey Cady's projections, a series of ultra-high-resolution images of stunning natural countrysides, impressionist riverbanks, and bird's-eye views of the bus(?) moving through the universe -- all projected on a screen that spans the entire upstage area -- prove so distracting that the poor actors are, at times, almost erased. Similarly, John Gromada's original music and sound design are often effective, and would be even more so if not so terribly omnipresent. Oddly here, matters of the soul are upstaged by technical finesse; at times -- especially during an animated video depicting a legion of "light people" landing from above -- I felt that I was at the next Peter Jackson picture. I can't believe this is what the creative team had in mind.

Only a day later, I came across another reluctant candidate for salvation, this time in "Pullman Car Hiawatha," part of a pair of Thornton Wilder one-acts under the omnibus title A Wilder Christmas, produced by Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clement's. We are in a Pullman car headed through the Midwest toward Chicago in December 1930; the Stage Manager introduces us to all the characters, including a cranky old lady, a lovelorn young man chasing after girl, a doctor, a mental patient, a pair of nurses (one male, one female), and a middle-aged married couple -- the female half of which, Harriet, is about to have a heart attack. When that happens, she is awakened by an Archangel -- his appearance is a marvelous little coup de théâtre from set designer Harry Feiner, not to be described here -- who is set to take her to the next world. Indeed, looking back, all she can see are the wasted hours, the things she didn't do, the thousand and one times she wasn't good to her husband. The Archangel whispers something in her ear. "I don't want to be forgiven so easily," she replies. Ultimately, with some effort, she gives way, but not with tremendous difficulty.

Wilder hardly shared Lewis' beliefs, but, like him, he took the very long view of things, and in "Pullman Car Hiawatha," he locates Harriet's death in the overall scheme of the cosmos. We hear the sound of earth -- the entire cast speaking at once -- and, later, the music of the spheres, represented by exotic bells. Time is a prime matter of discussion. "The minutes are gossips," the Stage Manager says. "The hours are philosophers. The years are theologians." We are then introduced to a three young ladies who represent the hours, who offer quotes from the Greek philosopher Epictetus and Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. Members of the audience are handed bits of the script to read, having to do with various cities through which the train is passing.

"Pullman Car Hiawatha" is hardly Wilder's most accomplished work, but it is enjoyably erudite, its tone of classic melancholy is most appealing, and, as a kind of laboratory for ideas that would later be explored in Our Town, it has it fascinations. And, under Dan Wackerman's direction, a fine cast, led by Michael Sean McGuinness' Stage Manager, brings Wilder's vision, an odd amalgam of sadness and joy, to life.

Wackerman and company do even better by "The Long Christmas Dinner," which features a concept so elegant that other playwrights have often helped themselves to it, most recently Dan LeFranc in The Big Meal. The dinner of the title is indeed long; it lasts over 90 years: It begins with the newly married Roderick and Lucia sitting down to a holiday meal with Mother Bayard, Roderick's mother, and Cousin Brandon. The conversation is charming, if filled with banalities that will be heard time and again across the decades. ("Such a lovely sermon! I cried and cried.") Every so often, the action freezes, and the years jump ahead. Characters exit, never to return, to be replaced by members of the younger generation. Eventually, war, changing mores, shifting urban patterns (the house, once almost a mansion, ends up surrounded by factories), and the American urge to move all exert themselves, and the play ends with the poignant image of an elderly relative sitting down to table all by herself.

In Feiner's set design, the beautifully set table is bookended by two portals: one covered with flowers, signifying birth, and one made of bare branches, signifying death. In one of the most effective moments, a pram, containing an infant, is ushered into the latter portal and the child's mother rises from the table in shock and horror. There are many fine moments: Mother Bayard's lively, conversation-making comment, "I can remember when there were Indians on this very ground" (words that today sends a chill through the theatre); a young wife who lightly, but firmly displaces her mother-in-law at the head of the table; a cold, resentful announcement that a rebellious son can't join them because he is "selling aluminum in China."

"I don't want time to go any faster," says one of the diners, but time is relentless in Wilder's view, and the procession of the generations in "The Long Christmas Dinner" proves to be deeply moving. Wackerman's sensitive direction and a very solid cast are alive to each little nuance that suggests that, once again, profound changes are in the air. In addition, Feiner's lighting of both plays casts the right melancholy mood; Marianne Custer's costumes (black and white for "Christmas Dinner," a wider palette for "Hiawatha") cover several decades of fashion history, and Quentin Chiappetta's sound design contributes to the universe-wide view of "Hiawatha."

So: Lewis or Wilder? In my view, Wilder, because his vision is so expansive and enigmatic, and because he was a playwright and his works benefit from solid dramatic structures. The Lewis piece has its charms, but it often feels static, and, as alluring as the author's voice may be, he often seems to be lecturing us. A Wilder Christmas is the perfect holiday treat for the skeptical, the pessimistic, and the other adults in the room. -- David Barbour


(9 December 2015)

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