Off-Broadway Theater Review: A WILDER CHRISTMAS (Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clement’s)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on December 8, 2015

in Theater-New York


BARBRA WENGERD as Genevieve and GISELLE WOLF as Lucia in THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER by Thornton Wilder.Under Dan Wackerman’s superb direction, Peccadillo Theater Company’s A Wilder Christmas, comprised of two Thornton Wilder one-acts—The Long Christmas Dinner and Pullman Car Hiawatha—is a gem. Mr. Wackerman’s unobtrusive style compliments the material; with unsentimental precision and a light touch he illuminates all the subtle little details of Wilder’s works until they hum and vibrate, and we find ourselves lifted into a place buzzing with sublime energy.

The Long Christmas Dinner spans 90 years and is set during a number of the holiday meals at the Bayard household. The family goes from comfortable to wealthy, members age, die, are born, grow, marry, move away, have children. There are aspirations and regrets, tragedy, moments of joy and sadness, all the things one would expect from a domestic chronicle, with no single character delved into too deeply. The story of this white, American clan is simple and unassuming, even ordinary in a way. Yet this “ordinariness” is a lot of what gives the work its power, in part because it allows us to make an immediate connection and lay the details of our own histories on the Bayard family template. In part because it doesn’t distract us from seeing the big picture that Wilder is painting.


We begin in 1840 with the first Christmas dinner—on the surface a scene of relative banality. But as the play progresses, with one Christmas following another, the feeling is of a camera pulling back; we start out with the family in close-up, but as the shot gets wider we realize that its original members are but threads in a larger family tapestry. Pulling back further still we see that the entire Bayard line as a single thread in the vast tapestry of America, of humanity, of life on earth, which itself becomes a tiny part of something cosmic—something awesome and incomprehensible, but at the same time small, personal, and infinitely precious.

PULLMAN CAR HIAWATHA by Thornton Wilder. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Pullman Car Hiawatha, the second play of the evening, also finds the cosmic in the everyday. The play begins with the Stage Manager (Michael Sean McGuinness) coming out and explaining to us that it’s 1930 and the stage is a sleeper car on a train travelling from New York to Chicago. Then passengers enter, settle in. We hear their thoughts as the train moves along. They sleep. One of them is struck by tragedy. Another is annoyed.

LAMAR GILES (white suit) as Archangel and GISELLE WOLF as Insane Woman in PULLMAN CAR HIAWATHA by Thornton Wilder. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Then the house lights come up and the Stage Manager hands out flash cards to front row audience members, then asks the chosen to stand up and read from the cards (first row ticket buyers terrified of public speaking beware). One card is written from the point of view of a town, and its reader becomes, in effect, a personification of that town. Another is from the mouth of a field. A third from the weather. We laugh and applaud the readers’ performances, as do the actors, who, when the house lights come on, drop character, sit up and listen. And gently, simply, a kind of unity is achieved, a barrier transcended, and we feel ourselves all become part of one thing, one organism. Then the house lights go off and the actors get back into character.

The excellent cast includes:  James Beaman, Victoria Blankenship, Jamil Chokachi, Merissa Czyz, Brad Fryman, LaMar Giles, LaWanda Hopkins, Michael Sean McGuinness, Kristin Parker, John Pasha, Jeremy Russial, Barbara Salant, Gael Schaefer, Anna Marie Sell, Rafe Terrizzi, Barbra Wengerd, and Giselle Wolf.

photos by Carol Rosegg

A Wilder Christmas
The Peccadillo Theater Company
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46 St
Mon & Tues at 7; Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on January 3, 2016 EXTENDED to January 10, 2016
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit The Pecadillo

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