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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 http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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