Saturday, October 8, 2011

Anna Maria Island Players kick off 63rd season with a winning 'family gathering'

Photo provided.
It’s rare for a theater troupe to make audience members laugh at one scene then dry their eyes at the next. But the Anna Maria Island Players achieve just that with “A Nice Family Gathering,” which opened the company’s 63rd season on Thursday. Phil Olson’s script stumbles in places but thanks to director James Thaggard’s nimble touch and some honorable performances, the comedy-drama works much better than it should.

The play finds a communication-challenged Minnesota family sharing their first Thanksgiving Day since the untimely death of Dad (Mark Woodland; pictured center). Pops finds his way back to the land of the living, though, by communicating with his son Carl (Tal Reeve; pictured left). Played for chuckles during Act I and pathos at the end of the final Act II, Dad can bee seen and heard on stage whenever he’s talking to Carl. Although it smacks of gimmickry, Olson pretty much nails this part of the script.

Hammering it home, though, is the chemistry between Woodland and Reeve. Their portrayal of the familiar but forever relevant strained relationship between a father and son who both grapple with expressing their feelings is what makes the play have purpose. The scene between Woodland and Beth Shaughnessy (pictured right), playing Mom, is what will make you reach for your handkerchief.

Jamie Daniel does more than hold his own as eldest son Michael. His character, like Dad and Carl, goes through a major transformation and Daniel makes the leap believable. The actor hampers his authenticity though, by sporting a ponytail and beard, when playing a country club-member medical doctor following in his straight-laced father’s footsteps. Reeve’s scruffy, too, but it fits. He’s a truck driver who writes a column for the tiny local weekly with hopes of landing a staff gig at the Minneapolis major daily Star Tribune.

Shaughnessy has the acting chops to shine as the grieving widow battling what could be Alzheimer’s disease. What’s disturbing about Olson’s script, though, is it too often uses her mental lapses for cheap laughs. Anyone who has witnessed a loved one slowly losing her mind should have a hard time finding these lines funny.

Anne Bean does an adequate job of playing Michael’s wife but her over-the-top Minnesota accent sounds cartoonish, especially when the rest of the cast smartly avoids such tricky realism. Rick Kopp makes the most of jovial Jerry, Dad’s old golfing pal who may or may not be trying to put the moves on Mom. 

Thaggard made quite a find with Wendy Kemp. She attended Palmetto High School as well as PACE Center for Girls and has completed early admission at State College of Florida, according to the playbill. “A Family Gathering” marks her stage debut. Kemp plays the ignored youngest sibling Stacy with the big surprises. After being barely heard in Act I her character is thrust into the spotlight during Act II, where the young actress gives a striking performance. 
“A Nice Family Gathering” has its flaws but, on balance, it’s fun, touching and a wonderful fit for the cozy, intimate theater of the Island Players.
If you go
What: “A Nice Family Gathering”
When: Today through Oct. 16. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Anna Maria Island Players, 10009 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria
Tickets: $15
Information: (941) 778-5755 or

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought Anne Bean's accent was brilliant, showcasing her character's role as an in-law, visa vie, not a Lundeen. Seeing the same performance you did, on the night of your review, I thought she brought much needed comedy relief with an impeccable timing for a person acting at the community level. Perhaps you could have been kinder.