Teen roles are among the most challenging to portray. Their problems often look trivial to adult audiences, while their contemporaries feel as though their lives are depicted in too facile a manner (it must be particularly hard to for a teenager to identify with a character being portrayed by a performer whose age is actually a decade or so older). Fear not, though. Director Geordie Broadwater and his Babel Theatre Project company have mounted in Christmas Is Miles Away a production that mines the landscape of teen confusion and disaffection at the Connelly Theatre. This is due in large part to Chloe Moss’ perceptive script.
Moss, a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize recipient this year, has an acute understanding of young emotions, those that are deeply felt but whose expression is difficult, and occasionally discouraged by others. In the course of eleven scenes spanning two years, structured in a deliberately meandering style, Moss charts the lives of three semi-bright young things.
Christie (Alex Fast) and Luke (Roger Lirtsman) are two sixteen-year-olds coming of age in Manchester, England, in the winter of 1989. The two are best friends, or, at least, a teenage version of such. As they talk of girls, travel, and other topics just within their purview, their conversations are riddled with the subtle power plays typical of ones looking to undercut the other in the areas in which they are most insecure.
Over time, life happens. Christie’s father passes away, and he begins to date Julie (Emily Landham), while Luke joins the army. Moss’s scenes, usually separated by several months apiece, develop each character’s gradual estrangement from one another, and their feeble attempts to remain connected despite their changing interests and experiences. As Christie pursues his more artistic impulses, Luke enlists in the first Gulf War.
The role of the war, and how it changes Luke, is the one area that I think Moss could have expanded further. Where the playwright does excel beyond many others, however, is her ability to make the disconnect between these mentalities palpable through her use of pauses, silences, clipped dialogue, and things left unsaid but understood; I was reminded of the profundity of Ernest Hemingway’s The End of Something.
The three actors are a major gift to Christmas, locating that precise point in which teenagers can be completely wrapped up in their lives and still emerge as sympathetic. Fast has a bit more material to work with on the page; Moss provides a roadmap of awkwardness and fear for Christie, which Fast navigates perfectly. Lirtsman is required to be a bit more resourceful, using more actorly tools to show Luke’s hidden pockets of worry and volatility to shine through. Lirtsman thrives with such a challenge, however, giving a performance that is as physically specific as it is emotionally colored.
Landham fits into the play nicely, showing how Julie, as a woman, can simultaneously be worth both more currency and less to two male friends at the same time. In Christmas, Moss looks at the different forms of behavior that occur between men still maturing when alone with each other, when alone with women, and when in mixed company, and her insight into such intimacy is incalculable. It is Landham’s role to show the toll these changes in behavior can have on a relationship, and, she, too, delivers a performance of stunning dedication.
Perhaps one of the more remarkable traits of Christmas is that despite the deceptively complicated subject matter and layered performances, this show is actually quite easy to sit through, thanks to Broadwater’s fluid pacing. No scene goes on for too long nor gives any audience member a chance for distraction. Daniel Zimmerman’s scenic design changes and Dan Scully’s lighting cues go a long way to moving the show along in such a seamless manner.
One thing is for sure: in a play about the fragility of friendship, it is important to keep the right people by your side. I hope that the Babel Theatre Project and Moss stick together to come up with more works to match this success.