Three days after seeing A Nice Family Gathering at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre, I was still trying to understand the inclusion of the word "nice" in playwright Phil Olson's title. This isn't a feel-good, fuzzy-holiday-feelings sort of Thanksgiving play that would render the title appropriate, if clichéd. Nor is it an over-the-top, crass, outrageous comedy that makes the use of the word ironic. (Nor, for the record, is it a play about a family with the last name Nice.) I'm guessing, however, that an over-the-top, crass, outrageous comedy was Olson's intent, given that the content of his play kind of approaches shocking, though barely.
I'm also still pondering why I'm supposed to care about the family members around which Olson's story is built, who are neither especially poignant nor especially funny. In the end, Olson's play is little more than a slice-of-life look at a family that's not incredibly interesting, with the exception of the senile mother who carries most of the play's comedic weight.
Though I didn't care for Olson's script (or title), I did like director Jennifer Kingry's fluidly delivered, well-paced treatment of it, and Kingry's cast renders Olson's mostly generic characters more intriguing and, in some cases, more endearing than Olson does. This is especially true of Liz Blackwell, whose Helen Lundeen - the widowed matriarch of the family involved in the "nice family gathering" - impressively weaves between sincerity and senility. Not once did I question the realness of her truly touching characterization, and Helen's bursts of mental oddness, such as popping her head in the room just to say, "I like jumbo shrimp," are worthy of laughter and sympathy at the same time.
Christopher Tracy also impresses as Helen's nerdy son Carl Jr., who is the first to arrive for the Thanksgiving gathering, and the only one who can see the ghost of his deceased father. Burdened with completing a task given him by Carl Sr.'s spirit - to finally tell his mother what Dad never did in life - Carl Jr. must also deal with the mother's shaky mental health, the surprising revelations of his brother and sister, and his attraction to his sister-in-law, and I'm not sure that Tracy could be more endearing or likable as this awkward yet kind young man.
Andy Davis delivers a notable and nicely nonchalant performance as the late Carl Sr., matching Blackwell's sincerity but offering a gruffer exterior. Justin Raver nicely counters Tracy as Carl Jr.'s more confident, and more stressed, sibling Michael, and as sister Stacy, Dana Skiles manages to pull off a wallflower who's actually interesting to watch - and whose thoughts register on her face at all times - even when she's simply sitting in the background. I've adored Skiles since last year's Independence at the Barn Theatre and, with this performance, continue to be a fan of her dry comedic style.
Dianna McKune, meanwhile, presents the most (relatively) subtle performance I've seen from her to date. While I enjoyed her Lina Lamont in Countryide Community Theatre's Singin' In the Rain this past summer, a role that called for melodramatic presentation, I find that McKune tends to overplay things a tad, even in her chorus roles in Quad City Music Guild productions. Yet while her facial expressions are a little overdone in her role here as Michael's wife Jill, they're at least within realistic territory, as Jill seems a naturally dramatic person. (McKune's occasional broadness is even more acceptable given that her character is on fertility drugs which are messing with her hormones.) And in his role as Helen's good friend and possible love interest Jerry Myers, Gregg Neuleib's inflections aren't very dramatic, but his comic delivery is spot-on in timing and tone.
It's worth noting that the second act is far funnier than the first, which barely elicited chuckles from Thursday's audience. The plot's climax was also touching enough to bring quite a few patrons to tears, judging by the sniffles and overheard requests for tissues. Even though I'm easily prone to crying during emotional scenes, I was more annoyed by the sentimentality of A Nice Family Gathering than moved, but I do respect that Richmond Hill's production drew strong reactions from others in attendance, which means the play itself is of value whether I liked it or not.
A Nice Family Gathering runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through November 18, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.