Paula Vogel had begun working on a new play - one that that would make use of puppets, as well as people - when the movie Being John Malkovich, about a frustrated puppeteer, was released in 1999.
"Oh, no," she remembers thinking, "people will think I stole the puppet idea."
It was no movie, of course, that led Vogel to intermingle puppets and actors in The Long Christmas Ride Home, which runs through Dec. 7 at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. (Nor was it, for that matter, an inkling of Avenue Q, the puppets-and-humans musical, now on Broadway, that premiered at the Vineyard.)
Rather, it was a vivid, imagined scene, Vogel explained the other day, over a double espresso at a Manhattan coffee shop. "It was a mental image of a grown man holding a child - but the child was a puppet, and he breathed life into the puppet."
So she followed the lead of that image. "There's a thin line between writers and people in sanitariums," Vogel noted wryly. "But characters do appear, and you hear them talk."
It was, after all, another mental picture - "I saw a woman adjust her image in the rear view mirror" of a car - that led Vogel, a native of Washington who grew up in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, to write How I Learned to Drive. That play earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.
In The Long Christmas Ride Home, the man-and-child vision was the spark for a memory play that recalls a hellish holiday drive undertaken by a family of five: the feuding parents (played by live actors) and three squabbling siblings (a trio of remarkable, life-size puppets) who are squashed into the back seat of the family's rusty old Rambler. Actors also play the two sisters and their brother as struggling adults, forever haunted by that long-ago ride.
"In Hollywood-speak, it's The Ice Storm meets A Christmas Carol," Vogel joked.
The play has gotten mixed reviews, with Newsday's Linda Winer calling it "brutal and lovely, cruel and mostly moving." Some critics have suggested that the Christmas ride of this dysfunctional family covers familiar ground. But the point, said the playwright, isn't to say something that's never been said before - since that isn't really possible; rather, it's to say it in a new way, "with a new technique."
In The Long Christmas Ride Home, the techniques are often those of Japanese drama - including the puppets (created by award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist), reminiscent of bunraku puppet theater.
If her experimental techniques serve the purpose of family drama, so be it, Vogel said. "I'm writing about families, about loss. I can't help it - that's me."
Besides, she said, "We do have patterns, we do have a voice. The older we become as writers," the more pronounced that voice is.
Vogel also is helping others find their own voice, as the Seaver Professor of Creative Writing at Brown University, where she teaches playwriting to graduate and undergraduate students.
In fact, during her recent trip to New York from her home base in Providence, R.I., she managed to catch a play by a former student: It was no less than the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Anna in the Tropics, by Nilo Cruz. She learned about Cruz's award in April, the very day she was about to be honored in a campus ceremony, said Vogel, who has taught at Brown since 1985.
"I went online 15 minutes before the ceremony," she recalled. "I started screaming when I saw it was Anna in the Tropics!"
Often described as a feminist playwright, Vogel has taken on such tough subjects as gay parenting (the 1979 Baby Makes Seven), AIDS (1992 Obie-winner The Baltimore Waltz) and incest (How I Learned to Drive).
The specter of AIDS arises again in The Long Christmas Ride Home, recalling, in part, the death of Vogel's own brother from the disease.
"The leaping-off point for me in this play is me reaching middle age and processing grief," said Vogel, who is 52. "It's been 16 years since my brother died."
Like most people of middle age, she has suffered other losses - of family members to cancer, of friends to AIDS.
Yet even in loss, there's beauty, Vogel said:
"The beauty is in looking at it back through time. There's a peace, there's an acceptance, there's an understanding, there's a hope."
In fact, she announced, she was about to tweak a couple of lines to emphasize the "hopeful and redemptive" qualities of Long Christmas Ride Home. The siblings whom she calls "the glue" of the play, may suffer terrible failures as adults in the larger world. But when they look back, it's "to the togetherness, the being together" of that jostling childhood ride in the Rambler.
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.