Thornton Wilder, best-known as the author of “Our Town” and the inspiration for “Hello, Dolly” (which is based on his play “The Matchmaker”), used to be considered in the same breath as Miller, O’Neill, and Williams. The Peccadillo Theater Company may help some theatergoers start to see why in its first-rate production, with a uniformly spot-on cast, of two of Wilder’s early one-act plays, “The Long Christmas Dinner” and “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” grouped under the title “A Wilder Christmas” and running through January 10th at the Theatre at St. Clement’s.
Despite the packaging, these are not Christmas plays in any traditional sense, and shouldn’t scare away those with a phobia towards that “heartwarming” genre. And tickets are just $25.
“The Long Christmas Dinner” presents 90 years of Christmas dinners around the table in one family, the Bayards, from 1840 to 1930. Over a mere 45 minutes, we see the parents grow old and die, and their children become parents, until they too grow old and die. Characters enter through the portal of life stage right and exit through the portal of death stage left, but, rather than gimmicky, this seems natural, albeit speeded up.
The changes over generations are subtle, and there is a certain amusing continuity: One family member, no matter what the generation, always manages to comment on the weather by saying: “Every last twig is encircled with ice. You never see that.” Wilder later made his brief play into an opera composed by Paul Hindemith. While rarely produced and little-known, “The Long Christmas Diner” seems to have exerted some influence, its approach evident in A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” and even in the Gob Squad’s recent “Before Your Very Eyes.”
“Pullman Car Hiawatha,” begins as a train ride from New York to Chicago. But it soon recalls “Our Town” (which Wilder would write in 1938) in that there is a “stage manager” ( Michael Sean McGuinness) and the train even passes by a “Grover’s Corners” (except this one is in Ohio, not New Hampsire.) But it soon leaves reality behind for a kind of cosmic exploration. We first listen in on the passenger’s thoughts; then we consider this one traveling train “geographically, meteorologically, astronomically, theologically,” as the stage manager explains– with appearances the ghost of a German-speaking railroad worker who was killed during its construction, as well as by incarnations of various towns and scenery that the train passes: Members of the audience are gently selected to read the parts of such characters as “The Field” and “Parkersburg, Ohio.” Actors dressed like contestants in celestial Miss America contest then portray hours of the clock, and archangels. But, as in “Our Town,” this short, experimental play stays rooted in the regular people who inhabit its world, asking us to contemplate what’s miraculous in the everyday.
A Wilder Christmas
The Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clements
Two plays by Thornton Wilder
Dan Wackerman (director) Harry Feiner (scenic & lighting design) Marianne Custer (costume design) Quentin Chiappetta (sound design)
Cast: ames Beaman, Victoria Blankenship, Jamil Chokachi, Brad Fryman, Michael Sean McGuinness, Kristin Parker, John Pasha, Jeremy Russial, Gael Schaefer, Anna Marie Sell, Rafe Terrizzi, Barbra Wengerd, Giselle Wolf, Merissa Czyz, LaMar Giles, LaWanda Hopkins, Barbara Salant
Running time: 90 minutes include intermission.