Addison — WaterTower Theatre is celebrating the holiday season with The Great Distance Home, a near-wordless play conceived and directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi, who serves as the theater’s associate artistic director. Ervi and the five actors share writing credit for the 75-minute, devised performance that was first developed a year ago, but this year it’s been moved to the main stage.
The talented ensemble of actors include Kelsey Milbourn, Tatiana Lucia Gantt, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Mitchell Stephens, and Garret Storms. Gantt is the only one who wasn’t part of last year’s original production.
Boy, wondrously played by Mitchell Stephens, serves as the play’s protagonist. The audience follows his story, throughout birth, education, childhood friendships, leaving home, falling in love, beginning a family, the drudgery of work, the loss of his parents, all the way up to his old age. The universal themes and mime technique never devolve into cliché. Instead, the shared experiences pull in the audience to the specific story of Boy’s life unfolding.
According to his bio, Stephens’ training includes an intensive workshop in physical theater based in Jerzy Grotowski’s method. His embodiment of the universal character is notably personal and concrete. The audience empathizes with him throughout the performance. We hold our breath as he traverses his perilous journeys, and we grieve when he experiences the loss of his mother, which is beautifully staged with the help of lighting designer Sam Rushen.
The multiple death scenes are elegant in their simplicity—if anything, they seem to be too short, with almost no emotional preparation, which seems fitting as a facet of life. Audience members were seen wiping tears away on opening night, obviously moved by these scenes. It’s a welcome change from most holiday offerings, in which feelings are easily manipulated with overly heartwarming sentiments.
Throughout the performance, which is staged in the round, certain corridors are weighted with particular narrative content. For example, what would be upstage house left from this reviewer’s perspective is where most of the storyline about the Boy’s parents takes place. Opposite that is where most of the arc of the Boy’s own family (that is, Boy, his wife, and child) plays out. There is a natural relationship that develops between various areas of the stage that also helps to advance the overall plot.
While such arena staging can be dynamic, forcing actors to continually negotiate with the audience behind them, it is difficult at best to pull off. Ervi’s staging alleviates some of these built-in problems. Overall, the audience does not miss too much of the smaller actions taking place at the periphery.
The ensemble does an exceptional job with this physically demanding show. They effortlessly transition from slapstick comedy to stylized, more expressionistic modes of acting. While Stephen’s Boy anchors the plot, all of the actors play multiple roles. Not overly choreographing the dance sequences allows their movement to appear more natural and authentic.
The narrative alternates between specific, concrete scenes and more abstract, symbolic actions. One of the major points of reference repeated in the show is family time at Christmas, but it’s a secularized, family-centric Christmas, lacking both Nativity and Santa Claus. The sentiment seems more akin to holiday favorites like The Velveteen Rabbit or, especially because of its wordlessness, The Snowman.
Scenic designer Bradley Gray transforms a list of simple props (books, umbrellas, flashlights, an empty picture frame, a ladder) into evocative, almost magical objects that simultaneously hold multiple meanings. The use of books that, in the characters’ imaginations, become birds is a particularly effective metaphor for inspiration and creativity. The book-birds beckon the characters to give in to their flights of fancy.
WaterTower’s homegrown play is a lovely addition to the typical holiday repertoire. By creatively blending Christmas carols, Chaplin-esque mime, and smartly conceived physical theater, The Great Distance Home is on course to become a holiday classic.