11/22/2019        A NICE FAMILY GATHERING                                           Stage Door Players



(Bias Alert:  I have been friends with actor Rial Ellsworth for {mumble mumble} years and tend to view his work through approval-tinted glasses.   Even with that caveat, don’t use too many grains of salt when reading any praise hidden here.)


Last year, Dunwoody’s Stage Door Players presented Phil Olson’s A Nice Family Christmas, which I found very enjoyable.  That play was actually a sequel to an earlier Thanksgiving-set play that tends to see a lot of regional (mostly Community Theatre) productions around this time of year.  So, director Robert Egizio has gathered (most) of last year’s cast together for another visit with the Lundeen clan.


For the benefit of those who enjoyed last year’s story, let’s roll back the calendar a bit.  It’s last Thanksgiving, the first since Dad’s passing, but he seems to be hanging around (the usual “spiritual unfinished business” so beloved of easy plots).  Mom seems to be on the verge of dementia, often forgetting where she is and who she is.    And, of course, all the kids have issues;  heck, they have subscriptions!


To top it off, Mom has invited old family friend Jerry to join them.  But is he a date or just a casual dinner guest?


To be perfectly honest, I found this show significantly “less than” last year’s visit.  I found the ghost story a bit of a stretch, the conflicts too contrived, the

clichés too abundant.  And, I experienced far too fewer laughs for these quibbles to be raked under a leaf pile.


On the other hand, the show does have sparkle, the performances do have zing, and the visit was more enjoyable than I would expect from such an overdone warhorse script.


So, we see an “earlier” version of struggling writer Carl and his quest to win his (late) father’s respect (he’s the only one who can actually see and hear Dad).  We see Dr. Michael and wife Jill struggling with the hormone explosion of fertility drugs.  We see sister Stacy almost invisible “in the closet,” even when she comes “out.”  And we see Jerry, who may be a scheming gold-digger after Dad’s estate (as well as his wife), but is more likely, especially in Rial Ellsworth’s easy-going characterization, just a pleasant fellow here for the company and the Turkey Corn Dogs.


Like last year, siblings Carl, Michael, and Stacy don’t look like siblings, but they sure ‘nuff act like them, with old grudges lovingly tended and easy hurt-and-acceptance flowing as quickly as Jill’s mood swings.  Played by Eric Poger Abrahamsen (Carl), Jeff K. Lester (Michael), and Madison Welch (Stacy), they wince and shudder at every embarrassing revelation, but coalesce in solidarity at every threat-to-them-all.  And Jill, the exquisitely talented Alexandra Ficken, whose high squeaky voice, coupled with hormonal overdrive SHOULD be more irritating than a family dinner, is once again charmingly vacant and surprisingly inciteful.  Often at the same time.


And, also like last year, Dina Shadwell is a force of calm, the rock that lets the craziness explode impotently and diffuse elegantly.  She is the emotional core of this family, and Ms. Shadwell makes all the critically-bashable stuff almost joyful.  Even her not-as-incipient-as-seems-at-first-glance dementia is more of a character quirk than a serious family problem.  And, James Baskin gives Dad a ghostly gravitas that cannot hide his affection for his family.


The Stage Door tech team (Tom Priester on Lights, Rial Ellsworth on Sound, Chuck Welcome on set, Jim Alford on Costumes, and Kathy Ellsworth on props) have all contributed their usual professional work.  Is there an award for “Best Tech Ensemble?”  These five are the reason there should be,


So, no, A Nice Family Gathering won’t linger in the memory banks as long as its Christmasier version, nor is it as breathtakingly funny as its Christmasier version.  In the final analysis, though, it underscores why some writers appeal to Community Theatres, and gives us a production that wallows in the clichés and contrivances of what can be accurately written off as a mediocre script.  And, in the hands of director Robert Egizio’s crackerjack cast and design team, it is far less of a chore than most actual family holiday dinners.


And isn’t that worth he inevitable tryptophan coma?


   -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #StageDoorPlayers   #NiceFamilyGathering)

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