This article was corrected on April 30, 2000.
Phil Olson’s pleasantly quirky tale of one cathartic Thanksgiving day in the life of the thoroughly Minnesotan Lundeen family could be likened to Garrison Keillor meets “Topper” by way of “Fargo.” The playwright’s understated, but exquisite, sense of humor, enhanced immensely by a talented ensemble, more than compensates for director Patrick Maloney’s deliberate, often lethargic pacing. Maloney (whose TV directorial credits include NBC’s daytime “Passions”) is so intent on having the dialogue understood he seldom establishes a smooth conversational flow.
Set in the Lundeen household somewhere in small-town Minnesota, “A Nice Family Gathering” (which has been optioned for feature film development by Providence Prods.) focuses on the angst-filled day of Carl (Olson), a truck driver-journalist, whose only claim to fame is his slice-of-life column in the town’s weekly local paper. Not only must he deal with his mentally deteriorating mom (Bonnie Snyder), his successful doctor older brother, Michael (Vice Cefalu), and his life-intimidated younger sister Stacy (Kit Paraventi), Carl is also being haunted by his deceased dad (Bert Kramer), a larger than life personality, dead for 10 months, who has some unfinished business he wants to accomplish through his less than cooperative middle son.
The Lundeens are “you betcha” Norwegian stock down to their bone marrow and Olson’s keen sense of the low-keyed, emotionally repressed, natural rhythm of their accent is the basis for much of the play’s humor. He has also created some memorable characters. Olson’s Carl captures the simmering resentment of a natural humorist who has filtered his years of frustrations through his writings. One of his columns, devoted to his father, is titled, “The Norwegian Who Loved His Wife So Much He Almost Told Her.”
Snyder is superb as the brighter-than-she-acts Mom whose mental lapses are rooted more in her deep mourning for her husband than in a loss of mental faculties. And Paraventi is simply hilarious as the thoroughly retiring Stacy who always has to remind everyone that she is still in the room. Paraventi provides the comic highlight of the evening when Stacy finally rises forever out of familial obscurity by making a beautifully timed announcement that changes everyone’s perception of her.
Cefalu’s debt-ridden, upwardly mobile Michael and Mary Jo Niedzielski as Michael’s weepy wife Jill provide ongoing fodder for Carl’s droll commentary. Kramer’s Dad certainly projects the aura of an unemotional, authoritarian patriarch but, for no explained reason, is the only member of the ensemble who doesn’t speak with that distinctive Minnesota accent.
Lisa D. Watson’s well-wrought living room/dining room setting captures the essence of middle class life in middle America. The setting is complemented by the costumes of Randon Pool and the lighting of Michael Murray.