STAGE REVIEWS : Season’s Readings : Death and Time--The Uninvited Guests to ‘Dinner’


Pacific Theatre Ensemble’s third annual production of “The Long Christmas Dinner,” Thornton Wilder’s extraordinary memory play, sweeps aside the usual batch of gooey holiday theater sentiments with profound simplicity. Dinner is spread out for us in the ensemble’s tiny second space in Venice, bedecked with a few quilts, a china cabinet, a dinner table and seven intelligent actors.

As we enter, we’re treated to carols, fresh cookies, hot cider in real mugs, and then Frank Sullivan’s magical story, “Crisp New Bills for Mr. Teagle,” charmingly read by Randy Oglesby.

Just when we’re cozying down to another Yuletide show, Wilder’s tale of three generations of the Bayard family blows in like a cold blast from the north. Moments of stage time can cover years in this increasingly wealthy but decaying family, with the Christmas dinner as a firm marker of time. The old folks die away, and so do children--one in swaddling clothes, one in World War I.

This is the Wilder of “Our Town,” whose sense of death’s and time’s effect on American innocence continues to evoke powerful emotional quakes. Director Steve Markus’ ensemble (Oglesby, Sarah Zinsser, Melissa Weber, Mick Regan, Loren Lester, Martha Hackett, and Stephanie Shroyer) plumb this landscape with exquisite unity.