If you think about it, some of our most cherished Christmas tales have a decidedly dark tinge to them.
Those spirits who come to haunt Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" are pretty darn scary. George Bailey's fever dream, which takes up most of the second half of "It's a Wonderful Life," is a grim piece of business, hardly full of comfort and joy.
Then there's Craig Lucas' "Reckless," which is full-on nightmare on Christmas -- or, more specifically, a number of Christmases over the years. Now at San Jose Stage through Dec. 16, it takes the holiday (as represented by decorations and numerous songs of the season, with "I'll Be Home for Christmas" being the most haunting) and turns it into an "Alice In Wonderland" fable with murder, mayhem, dysfunctional family life, mental breakdowns and homelessness.
The play -- one of the earliest works by Lucas, who would go on to write "Prelude to a Kiss," "Light in the Piazza" and "Prayer for My Enemy" -- is also quite funny, although much of the laughter is of the nervous, should-we-be-laughing-at-this kind.
Clearly set in the 1980s when Lucas wrote it -- there are still pay phones and the dominant software system is Lotus -- "Reckless" opens on Christmas Eve in the suburban home of Tom and Rachel and their two sons. Rachel (Halsey Varady in the Stage production) is just full of the joy of the season. She can't stop grinning and dancing around the room in anticipation of the big day. "You better watch out, it's catching," she tells her husband.
She even sees the beauty of the snowstorm raging outside, saying it will "carry us away into a dream."
Nightmare is more like it, though, because Tom (Will Springhorn Jr.) has decided that Christmas Eve is the perfect time to have Rachel knocked off by a hit man. Yep, that's his Christmas present for his wife: a contract on her life. But Tom, perhaps caught up in the spirit of the season, tells Rachel of the plan, and this innocent suburban waif suddenly finds herself running through the snow and into a strange journey that may or may not be a dream.
Like Alice -- or Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," for that matter -- Rachel immediately finds herself surrounded by strange creatures who seem to exist in some parallel universe conjured up by the playwright. She ends up spending Christmas (and several Christmases afterward) with a loopy physical therapist named Lloyd (Michael Navarra) and his "deaf" paraplegic wife, Pooty (Katie O'Bryon), who is only pretending she can't hear. She becomes the couple's unofficial adoptive child, ending up with them on a bizarre game show called "Your Mother or Your Wife."
Rachel also gets a job at a strange nonprofit humanitarian foundation called Hands Across the Sea, working with a bookkeeper named Trish (Judith Miller), who thinks the nonprofit should really benefit her bank account. Along the way, she goes through sessions with an increasingly weird array of shrinks (all played Dena Martinez), who are determined to help her find herself.
Throughout this odyssey of mindgames, Rachel somehow maintains her optimism and innocence -- until she doesn't anymore. There is, much like "A Christmas Carol," a coda of redemption at play's end, but after all Rachel has gone through, it feels like slight comfort.
It would be easy to take "Reckless" way over the top, but director Kenneth Kelleher, a regular at the Stage, and his cast find just the right level of restraint while evoking the uneasiness beneath Lucas' blithe lines and keeping up with the playwright's constant shifts in tone.
Of course, "Reckless" wouldn't work at all without an actress playing Rachel who can deliver on the intricacies of the role. Mary-Louise Parker was probably the defining Rachel in the 2004 Broadway revival, which will suggest the skill set involved. Varady, who has been a shining light in such Stage productions as "Cabaret" and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," may not be Parker, but she is very good in a challenging part.
The ensemble also rises to the occasion with Navarra, O'Bryon and Miller all doing fine work. And Martinez is terrific as all those doctors, giving all of them their own personalities and quirks.
You can't go into "Reckless" expecting the warm glow of a traditional holiday offering, or even a work that makes complete sense. But what you will get is a Christmas gift of lyrical insight and compelling theater.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
By Craig Lucas
Through: Dec. 16
Where: San Jose Stage,
490 S. First St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $14-$45. 408-283-7142. www.thestage.org