Phil Olsen Warms our Hearts Like a Hot Toddy
by Tyler Jeffreys
“A Nice Family Gathering” makes us want to call our loved ones just to say, “I love you.”
Thanks to Kimberly Ridgeway’s clever directing and the cast’s generous acting, we’re in for a cozy night of chuckling and warmth with the Lundeens. The cast’s chemistry lights up the cozy Midwest living room designed by Tom Shamrell. They dish out smooth comebacks with cute believable Minnesota accents, “Doncha knoo!”
Dad (sarcastic Kyle Smith) is on a mission: to tell Mom (Marsha Howard) “I love you.” Only one wonderfully absurd problem: Dad died ten months ago so he haunts his own house.
Dad’s got unfinished business. No longer distracted by money and high expectations, from the afterlife he leads his family from quarrels, lies, and selfishness towards love, laughter, and truth.
Since only middle child Carl (down to earth Peter Marietta) can see Dad’s ghost; it’s a hoot watching him quarrel with a ghost! Reluctant Carl whines about how Dad worked too much, blaming his trauma on his father. Carl’s complaints quickly become self-indulgent.
This generational clash illustrates the fine line between toughness and fragility. Dad’s old- school, no nonsense ways used to be survival skills. Even now my granddad says I need to learn a trade, like a mechanic so I will always have a job.
As Carl, Marietta doesn’t miss a beat, concealing his arguments with Dad’s ghost from the rest of family. Carl evades their confused stares with quick lies. When oldest brother Michael (suavemente Byron Guo) swaggers onto the stage, Carol’s rants against the bossy ghost get tougher to hide—and funnier.
Youngest sibling Stacy (dynamite Alejandra Wahl) stumbles in after Michael. When her own family struggles to remember her name, she looks around in dismay, like “seriously?!” Everyone takes a turn to ignore her, and we can’t get enough of it. She’s like Meg from the Family Guy cartoon. Neglected Stacy fades out of sight, but Wahl makes her a star in our eyes.
While the family eats their Thanksgiving “turkey dogs,” Stacy sits alone eating off a TV tray. When she elaborately tries slitting her wrists, Michael dryly wonders what she’s doing:
Cutting my wrists!
That’s a butter knife Stacy…
She drops her head in defeat. I laughed so loud that Wahl looked like she might laugh along, too, but she keeps the character sturdy. The actors push playwright Phil Olsen’s story forward with vigor and purpose. We get it now—Dad’s lack of affection caused trauma to the whole family.
Dad sees his wife losing it and the younger generation in disarray. His children fight and complain while Michael’s stressed-out wife Jill (animated Missa Perron) bursts into tears every ten minutes.
Can the generations come together? Can the discipline and level heads of the past merge with the sensitivity and freshness of the present? Starting with families, we could spread balance into the wide world.
OK, I cried. As soon as I leave the theater, I feel that Fall, family, gooey feeling. I plan to keep it going all year long. Go get some ‘feel good’ at “A Nice Family Gathering” at Altarena Playhouse. The perfect date.
“A Nice Family Gathering” by Phil Olson, directed by Kimberly Ridgeway, at Altarena Playhouse, Alameda, California. Info: Altarena.org – to November 20, 2022.
Cast: Byron Guo, Marsha Howard, Peter Marietta, Missa Perron, J. Aaron Seymour, Kyle Smith, and Alejandra Wahl.
Banner photo: J. Aaron Seymour, Marsha Howard, Kyle Smith, and Byron Guo. Photo by Grizzly De Haro