BWW Review: MAKING GOD LAUGH Will Make You Glad You Saw It at Florence Community Theater
For those of you who have never been to a production by The Florentine Players, you are in for a treat. It's small town dinner theater. The stage is located at the front of a large space filled with long tables in the Florence City Hall off State Street. At the back of the room is a canteen where you can buy popcorn, cookies, or nachos and a variety of other things. There is a beverage bar in the hallway. It's cozy. It's neighborly. And that's what makes this production of MAKING GOD LAUGH so great.
MAKING GOD LAUGH is Sean Grennan's 2011 heartwarming play which premiered at Peninsula Players Theatre in Wisconsin. It observes a family of five over three decades of holidays and get togethers. Ruthie (Shelly Gushard) and Bill (Neal Herring) host their adult children, Richard (Chris Perry), Maddie (Laura Richwine), and Thomas (Guillermo J. Rosas) for a big dinner featuring Ruthie's dreaded Fantasia dip. Each dinner is accompanied by Picture Time, where photographic memories of their family are captured, but possibly not looked at again.
Bill and Ruthie have big dreams for their children. Bill dreams of the days that Richard was the Most Valuable Player on his football team. Ruthie insists that her children refer to their brother Thomas by the respected title of Father. Maddie is the daughter Ruthie dreams will give her grandchildren.
It's a complicated family that usually erupts into confrontation with hilarious comebacks and underlying bitter sadness. Over the years, their relationships change. The family grows apart, and yet they are tied together in an unbreakable bond.
The cast is tight with a strong sense of connection. Perry and Richwine go at each other with goodnatured and sometimes not quite so goodnatured barbs, just as most siblings do. He's a guy with a plan. He's the one who buys a salmon colored Pacer car and she's the one to ask him when he started working for Mary Kay. She's the one who says she may invest in Google and he's the one who mocks her, convincing her that Enron is the way to go. Meanwhile, Rosas as the "good son"-- Ruthie's "holy child"-- is in seminary, training to become a priest. His mom wants to hear about Mass. His siblings want to hear about confessions. Father Tom tells them confession is not so weird...except for the old ladies who have vivid imaginations involving Tom Selleck. Rosas maintains a sanguine attitude in the face of all the negativity, but his surprising revelation near the end of the play shows that there is more emotion than meets the eye.
Gushard's Ruthie is devoted to her Catholicism, demanding that her priest son bless the annual Fantasia dip that smells like plastic burning. She is proud of Tom, tolerant of Richard whom she considers not quite grown up yet, and hard on her daughter Maddie. Maddie is never quite good enough. Ruthie suggests that she could attract a man if she lost a little weight, and that she should give up acting-- after all, there are no grandchildren in the house. Her answer to Maddie's feelings is a little prayer and discipline. That's what she did.
Neal Herring as easygoing Bill goes along with most everything. But it becomes known that he is not opposed to going behind his wife's back when he disagrees with her. Herring displays his metal in an explosive outburst. "You do the best you can," he tells Ruthie, "and the birds fly the way they want to fly."
Ruthie didn't always live like this. She wasn't always a mother who served her country by having children. She had secrets in her youth and they are about to be exposed. As she gradually succumbs to the relentless pull of her advancing years, her wall comes down. There are things about their mother they didn't know. Will these draw them closer or push them further away?
Molly Anderson has done a fine job directing this cast of five. In just one instance I witnessed a gamut of reactions that were incredibly expressive: Richard finishes reading his original poem on manhood. Bill sport a goofy grin. Ruthie purses her lips. Tom suppresses a smile. And Maddie shows outright humorous delight in watching her rival sibling make a fool of himself. They are so distinct. So personable. I love how each actor has defined his or her personality down to the finest detail.
Details play an important role in the set design. The curtains remain open between acts so that the audience can see for themselves how the furnishings change each ten years. That box TV becomes a flatscreen. The afghans transition from crocheted squares to more Pottery Barn. The decorations change from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
Cecelia Sass paid attention to detail in her costume choices. The 1980s had Richwine dressed like Madonna, and Perry in a polyester suit. At the onset of Y2K Perry is garbed in camouflage pants and carries a baseball bat. Rosas initially wears jeans cinched high up on his waistband and paired with a polo shirt. Gushard changes from a soft sweater and a lace head covering, to a classic cardigan and jeans, to a fuzzy robe and horrendous black slippers that pin our attention on her shuffling feet. Herring acquires a cane to accompany his stooped posture. There was a good deal of thought put into the costuming. It was also fun to see how the hairstyles changed over the decades with increasing touches of gray and receding hairlines.
The story crafted by Sean Grennan is beautifully real. The fighting, the need to keep the peace by telling small lies, and the desperate search for validation and love are common threads in all relationships. I slowly saw the ending coming, and yet it knocked me off my feet. What a lovely way to end this love story.
I am sorry this play will only run one weekend. It deserves a second helping.
Photo Credit: John Lemen