Addison — It’s been two days since I saw The Great Distance Home, WaterTower Theatre’s devised and very different world premiere holiday show, and I’m still thinking about it.
That’s a good sign, right?
Images from the play, conceived and directed by WTT Associate Artistic Director Kelsey Leigh Ervi, keep flashing past, mysterious snippets of motion, light, and life passing at the speed of…life. The Great Distance Home connects and compels us with nakedly simple visuals and emotions—though, if you ask me exactly how Ervi weaves Magritte-style functionaries in trench coats and bowlers, man-sized babies and pop Christmas tunes into a textured whole, I might admit it’s tough to dissect the method without losing the magic.
But one thing I’m sure of: The Great Distance Home is as much a holiday/Christmas story—happy, sad, effervescent, bittersweet, and human—as anything dressed up in way more tinsel and gold.
There can’t be more than a handful of words in this 70-minute piece, acted (and, I should add, danced, tumbled and flown) by a light-footed ensemble of five: Kelsey Milbourn, Carissa Jade Olsen, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Mitchell Stephens and Garret Storms.
One of those words forms the story’s center: home. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” croons the singer on the old radio, and a young couple (a heart-tugging Olsen and Ramirez) emerges from among the too-busy shoppers and harried business types. They make a home from a pair of chairs and their love, dance to the tune on the radio, and then dash for the hospital (in a car made of actors and props) for the birth of their baby. The Boy (a wide-eyed, beautifully new-human Stephens), somersaults into the world and takes in the view from the rug, kicking his heels in delight.
We follow the Boy as he runs through the grass, stargazes, goes to school, and comes up against the knowledge that he and his father are, literally, not on the same page about how to live life. The Boy’s mother says “Go” and hugs him goodbye. He meets a solemn-faced figure (Garret Storms) pointing him, like the scarecrow in Oz, both East and West. The Boy chooses a path—and off he goes, to experience a lifetime of adventure and love, family and parenthood, work, regret, rejuvenation in about a 15-minute span. We follow him through it all, by the end watching the generations pile up onstage in a kind of giddy joy.
All done, mind you, in an almost-wordless world that instead abounds with movement. Kids soar, makeshift capes fluttering behind them; workers march in lockstep, heading for jobs they hate; lovers dance their way through a crowd to meet and walk “in a winter wonderland.” And however the show’s loose-limbed choreography was devised, it’s executed beautifully by everyone, with Storms and Milbourn (also a dancer/choreographer) particularly memorable.
With engaging warmth, Milbourn and Storms also play the Boy’s wife and their own baby Boy. It’s a new family and a home that might last—if the grown Boy can find a way to change the patterns of the past.
If you think minimalism isn’t for you, try this show on for size. With only the barest of stagecraft and a few carefully chosen props—books, hats, ropes, ladder, and found objects used in endearingly clever ways as sound effects—a lifetime forms before our eyes. Scenic designer Bradley Gray’s stage-filling rug, pieced strip by strip on the diagonal, feels like a touch of home underfoot wherever Boy goes—and the rug’s interspersed whites glow like snow when designer Jack Piland brings the lights down low.
There’s an echo of Thornton Wilder’s short play The Long Christmas Dinner here—something of its circling, repeating observation of one family around the same table through decades of time. And perhaps a whiff of Max’s dinner from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are—in which a boy leaves home and returns changed, and hungry for a meal “still hot” after all his journeying.
Not too shabby company to be keeping—but Ervi’s latest work (she also co-created WTT’s The Spark in 2015 with Kyle Igneczi) has a vivid and singular presence that’s quite its own.
The Great Distance Home is a love letter to the homes we grow up in and out of, the homes we sometimes lose and work to create again. Only this time, we vow, we’ll keep all the good stuff, and leaves the mistakes behind. We’ll do it better. And sometimes, yes—we do.