Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Oh Brother (and Sister)! “A Nice Family Gathering” comes to Whittier Community Theatre

The cast of "A Nice Family Gathering" at WCT

Despite the media packaging, Thanksgiving, like any other major family occasion, can be fraught with underlying tensions. Not all families meet the greeting card standard. Making fun of this potential for awkwardness and insanities can prove great fodder for playwrights.

One example of this is Phil Olson’s “A Nice Family Gathering” now open at the Whittier Community Theatre. The play itself is a multiple award winning comedy. As produced at WCT, there are still struggles to find the balance of quirky comedy and meaningful family message. The awkwardness, it appears, is not in their script, but in themselves.

As a story it’s sort of a modern “A Christmas Carol” meets “All in the Family.” The Lundeens are gathering at the family home in small-town Minnesota for their first Thanksgiving since the death of their father. For each, issues arrive too. The writer feels he never lived up to his father’s expectations. His older brother, the doctor, feels the pressure to continue following in his father’s footsteps. The younger sister, generally ignored, arrives with issues of her own. And their mother seems kooky: is it depression due to loss, or the onset of Alzheimer’s?

And then, in walks the ghost of their father, offered one day to – through his writer son, who can see him – tell his wife he loved her, something he never quite got around to doing while alive.

In this production the three adult children come off as interesting individuals. As the writer, Carl, Justin P. Murphy all but vibrates with personal frustration, and juggles well the subterfuge necessary to hold conversations with someone nobody else in the room can see. As his older brother, Michael the “good son,” John Warner becomes the stuffy image of respectability, melting just a bit as he explains how such rigid goodness is dooming his marriage.

Meghan Duran gives the ignored sister Stacy an aura of fatalistic acquiescence, which works up to a point, though it doesn’t explain the connections suddenly created in the second act. Greg Stokes plays the father’s old golf buddy Jerry with a genuineness, which helps dispel the father-ghost’s suspicions regarding Jerry and the ghost’s widow. Jerry Marble plays the ghostly father rather all in one key, but perhaps that would happen if you had one day to watch your family rearrange itself without being able to contribute.

Laura MacDowell is a harder sell as Michael’s wife. Supposedly hyped on hormones and desperate for a fertility that eludes her, her only way to show emotion is to face-plant into someone’s chest and make weeping noises. A more rounded characterization would have added to the comedy. Andrea Townsend, called upon to be both goofy and mom-practical does much better with the second act’s human interaction than she does with the more bizarre actions of the first act. It’s mostly that her timing, like MacDowell’s, is off from the rest of the piece, making jokes fall flat.

Director Karen Jacobson doesn’t seem to have talked her cast through their characters’ transitions much. Michael’s abusive behavior of his little sister is simply gone suddenly, and dismissed in the process. Carl’s abuse of Jerry is equally left at the “he’ll get over it” stage. Either the emotions and interactions on stage are far more intense than the script, or that transition is supposed to be telegraphed by actions that are missing. It leads to a sense that the first and second acts are not really the same play.

I also have to wonder a bit about the choice of this play for this particular audience. So much of the crowd at WCT plays is of an older generation. A show about kids sure that all quirks of their parent are oncoming dementia, not to mention ending up listening to the ache of a long-time spouse for a companion wrested away too soon, doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing these folks would laugh at. The resulting lack of feedback may also be a part of the timing problems for the performers.

In any case, “A Nice Family Gathering” has some cute moments, and handles some difficult material with humor and pathos. Still, as served up at Whittier Community Theatre, it has some significant flaws one cannot overlook. On the other hand, if you come with food for a local food bank, they’ll give you free goodies at intermission. That, and the support of the oldest community theater in the greater Los Angeles area are incentives for attendance all by themselves.

What: “A Nice Family Gathering” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 13. Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students 18 and under Info: (562) 696-0600 or

5 responses to “Oh Brother (and Sister)! “A Nice Family Gathering” comes to Whittier Community Theatre

  1. Anonymous November 8, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    This show was originally written for Phil Olson to star in. It was written as a spoof as are the rest of his shows. The lack of characterizations came from the script it’s self, there are huge holes in the script. Unfortunately the when performing this show the theatre group agrees to not changing anything.

  2. Anonymous November 11, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    Considering the audience was laughing and crying through the production, this review makes me want to head-tilt with a “Huh?” and wonder what production you viewed. Noted, there are flaws with the script, but these flaws are to be found in the writing, not the actors. The actors worked hard to faithfully portray what material they were given. You mention that Michael’s abusive behavior towards Stacey is suddenly gone, and in the script, that’s exactly what happens. Actors cannot include transitiions in character development or plot if they are nonexistent in the script. The response to Jerry is simply, as Mom states, “He’s a good friend. He’ll get over it” and we’re left with that. Sorry if you didn’t like the portrayal of Jill, but she is more of a characterization included for easy laughs than a fully-rounded character. Her main stage direction in the script is “Jill cries.” A lot. Hence the comments from other characters to “get Jill off the hormones” and “maybe she won’t cry so much.”
    Most of your criticism seems to stem from a lack of familiarity with the play. Some of your critiques might have found footing had there been evidence of any thoughtful research of the play prior to viewing it. But as it stands, this review holds no sway with those involved in this production.

    • Frances Baum Nicholson November 11, 2011 at 1:18 PM

      Are you actually saying that I can’t react to a play without doing research first? Is that how an audience is supposed to ready themselves too? Seems a rather high expectation. In any case, since I noted the script’s many awards, I obviously did research it. Those awards would tend to fly in the face of what you are saying.

      Also, the art of direction, and the art of acting – as I know from long experience on both sides of the footlights – is to take characters beyond what is in the script. If it says “Jill cries,” then she should do so in ways which allow for humor, as well as authenticity – ie: not always the same way, or as unconvincingly. If there isn’t anything in the script about why a sudden change in attitude is happening, when this is obviously taking place, then it becomes the actors’ and director’s job to figure out how to make a logical transition through physicality, if not through words. Performers’ and directors’ jobs are to fill in those holes. It is what the author must have expected would happen with this award-winning script.

      Thank you for your feedback.

  3. Anonymous November 11, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    Thank you for your review of the show, however this wasn’t a dramatic version of “Hamlet”, it was a “spoof” of a dysfunctional family with “North Dakota” humor. There was nothing “authentic” in the script. In fact most of Phil Olson’s “award winning” shows (including this one) are over the top farces performed just that way over the top. You can’t go beyond the script without changing the entire show. The 100 or so persons in the audience gave WCT glowing feedback they loved the show. Thank you again so much for coming.

  4. Frances Baum Nicholson November 11, 2011 at 5:50 PM

    Well, this one didn’t go over the top enough, then. Again, that was a directorial or actor’s choice.

    As for not being Hamlet… Please go back and read my review of your theater’s “Good News.” When a show is good, at any stage, of any type, I say so. Honesty, both ways, is how I keep my job, and how the public trusts me.

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