Garrison Keillor is not the only writer to find his voice in the Norwegian communities of the upper Midwest. Phil Olson, whose “A Nice Family Gathering” has opened the Off-Broadstreet Theater’s 25th season, grew up in Edina, Minnesota (said to be the site of the first indoor shopping mall), the great grandson of Norwegian immigrants. “A Nice Family Gathering” is one of Olson’s four award-winning plays set in a small town in Minnesota.
The play takes place in the Lundeen family home on Thanksgiving Day, the first Thanksgiving since Dad died. A stressed-out mom, joined by her three children, is sort of preparing the Thanksgiving dinner. This does not mean that the children are helping. The middle child, Carl, writes a weekly column for the local paper. This is his passion, but he supports himself by driving a delivery truck, which his older brother, Michael, a doctor, finds declasse. Michael’s wife, Jill, is trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant and is making herself sick by taking all kinds of fertility pills. She spends a good deal of her time bursting into tears. Stacy, the youngest, and clearly the lowest on the totem pole, tends to be completely ignored by the others unless there’s something she can do for them.
The final family member at the house is Dad who is, of course, a ghost. He has come back to tell Mom he loved her, something he neglected to do in their 40-plus years of marriage. The play has been described as the story of a man who loved his wife so much he almost told her.Dad is visible only to Carl and expects Carl to convey his message to Mom. Carl, like the other children, has his own unresolved family issues, which gives the playwright boundless opportunities for the humor that comes from characters talking to people others on stage do not see.
Complicating the situation even further, Jerry, a friend of Mom’s, arrives. Here is something the children — not to mention Dad — can all agree on: although mom has invited Jerry, they would like him to leave. High among their reasons is their belief that he makes a habit of solving his money problems by taking advantage of his female friends.
Since this is a comedy, the audience knows that everything will work
out in the end, and Olson has a trick or two up his sleeve to keep the
ending from being totally predictable. He is aided in his mission by some highly capable actors, all Off-Broadstreet veterans. Barry Abramowitz, who plays Michael, is apparently a specialist in playing men who don’t notice what is bothering those around them. In the last Off-Broadstreet production, he was the father who was so preoccupied with his own concerns that he messed up all his obligations toward his daughter’s wedding. Vanessa Oates, who plays Michael’s wife, Jill, first appeared with the company last year in “Leading Ladies.” George Agalias, who plays Dad, is also making his second appearance with the company.
Brady Dunbar Niederer, who does a wonderful job as Carl, combining his desire to help with his distaste for the position he’s being put in, is doing his third role with OBT. And Alison Quairoli, who plays the ignored sister, Stacy, is up to her eighth OBT production. N. Charles Leeder, who plays Jerry, and Jan Miktus, who is Mom, have both been away from Off-Broadstreet for a while. Miktus, incidentally, is the only one who attempts a Minnesota accent, but she brings it off with aplomb.
All the action takes place in the living room or on the porch of the family home. Robert Thick serves as director and makes sure the action is clear and accessible to the audience. He has once again designed the set, which is, as audiences have also come to expect at Off-Broadstreet, both attractive and functional. The low-key costumes, which seem appropriate, are the work of the ever-reliable Ann Raymond.
"A Nice Family Gathering," Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, October 24. Comedy. $27.50 to $29.50. The theater opens for dessert one hour before curtain. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.