Comic Relations Enliven Playhouse’s A Nice Family Gathering

 

 The Lundeens are a dysfunctional family. No doubt about it.

Brother Michael, the ‘successful’ doctor, is repressed and desperate.

Brother Carl, the truck-driving ‘journalist,’ is resentful and sarcastic.

Sister Stacey flutters waif-like around the edges of the family, mostly overlooked.

Michael’s wife Jill teeters on the brink of hormonal hysteria.

Mom Helen appears to be losing all sense of reality.

And Dad? Well, he’s actually dead. Sort of. 

The appeal of Phil Olson’s A Nice Family Gathering, the last show of the Upper Canada Playhouse 2012 summer season, is this. In even the most dysfunctional of families, there remains a deep running thread of loyalty and love which simply can’t be broken. 

In the course of a Thanksgiving dinner, audiences will get to know the Lundeens, laugh with the Lundeens (often and very loudly) and yes, even shed a tear with them. 

A Nice Family Gathering is a great show.

Lovingly directed by Donnie Bowes, it features the “blue chip” cast Bowes said (in an earlier press conference) he needed to bring Olson’s play to the stage. 

Don Ciaschini is Jerry, the neighbour. It’s a smaller role, but Ciaschini brings real personality to it. He was Carl Sr.’s oldest friend: he remains Helen’s friend. And he is a kind of catalyst in the play, setting off unexpected events. As he observes,  ultimately fleeing from the ‘friendly’ dinner he thought he was attending, “Any family with more than three people is dysfunctional.” 

Richard Bauer creates a truly sympathetic character in his Carl Lundeen. Scruffy, resentful of what he believes is the family preference for brother Michael, the doctor, he clings to the hope of becoming a journalist. Unfortunately, his sole output, a weekly column, Observations, runs only in a tiny local paper. Stories focussed, for example, on the time he swerved to miss a gopher and spilled coffee in his crotch, have never gained him much respect at home.

But Bauer’s Carl is also very witty, very funny. He alone is able to see the ‘spirit’ of his late father, who has returned to the family on a mission. And he is the one, to his horror, Dad wants to use to “channel” those efforts. 

Jamie Williams, Dr. Michael, is one half of “the perfect couple.” He’s got a beautiful wife, a beautiful house, a beautiful car and he’s absolutely miserable. His wife, Jill, (Kate Gordon in a role that could have become a caricature, but is instead sympathetic and loving) is “just a little emotional.” She and Michael have been unsuccessfully trying to have children, and the effort has become a burden. And Michael’s finances have taken a bad turn.

Stacey, played with a certain wonderful ditziness by Liz Gilroy, is the too often overlooked child. 

“I don’t think Stacey will ever get married,” Helen proclaims. “She’s just not popular with boys.”

“Mom, I’m right here,” Stacey wails.

“Well, I didn’t think you’d mind my saying it. You like being alone, don’t you?”

However, it is Stacey, delivering two bombshells after dinner, who flings the Lundeen family into comic chaos.

The heart and soul (literally, in Dad’s case) of the Lundeen family are the parents.

Doug Tangney, even as a ghost, is charming, unexpected and incredibly funny. His running commentaries on events, his head to head duels with Carl, the absolute certainty with which he finally admits his family is “a Marx Brothers movie,” endear him to the audience. Yes, he made mistakes as a father, but he utterly adores the wife and the children he had to leave behind. 

That wife is played by Linda Goranson with both pathos and great humour. Her family fears that she is slipping away from reality: turkey dogs for Thanksgiving dinner, boiling water that she never remembers to add coffee to, and confusing comments like ‘Spam makes me laugh’ and ‘I love jumbo shrimp’ suggest there may some truth to their fears. 

They all adore her. So does the audience.

When she and Carl Sr, using son Carl as the intermediary, finally reveal the true, forever depth of their love, we cared. 

It was a wonderful moment.

And this is a wonderful piece of theatre. The play is hilarious, unexpected, touching and, above all, really entertaining. 

Plan to spend some time with the Lundeens at A Nice Family Gathering. You won’t regret it.

Call Upper Canada Playhouse at 1-613-543-3713 for tickets and information or contact www.uppercanadaplayhouse.com 

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