Carl Lundeen wonders how an airplane's overhead luggage bin is invariably the size of a screaming baby. That's a clever observation, but it's also a trifle odd, coming from a run-of-the-mill bakery-truck driver. Carl, bless his heart, apparently hasn't ever flown anywhere special, so what would he know from luggage bins (or babies, for that matter, since he's never married)? Simple: The idea just popped out of his head, and it makes a great entry in his little weekly newspaper column, the perfect outlet for the impassioned journalist within.
He'll probably never get the reporter's job he applied for at the big-time Minneapolis daily, but that's just as well. There's plenty of underachievement to go around in A Nice Family Gathering, OnStage Playhouse's current entry, at least in the beginning. Carl's big-shot doctor brother Michael owes the IRS $60,000; and, far worse yet, Carl's late Dad never managed to tell his wife of 35 years that he loved her. The latter's back from the departed to make up for his neglect, showing himself only to Carl—what unfolds is a surprisingly nuanced script, a remarkable performance and a sizable feather in South County's theatrical cap. If you like American Public Media's A Prairie Home Companion, you'll probably fancy this, and for lots of the same reasons.
Like Companion, this show is set in rural Minnesota. And playwright Phil Olson has a lot of Garrison Keillor in him—the characters' relationships are extremely familial, and you get the feeling none of these folks would do well in a big city, especially now. It's the Lundeens' first Thanksgiving since Dad's passing, and in his absence, the family laundry's ripe for the airing. Carl (Nathan Plummer) is a loser because he drives a truck; Michael and trophy wife Jill (Rob Conway and Jenna Dawsey) are on each other's nerves because Jill hasn't conceived; and sister Stacy (Layla Stuckey), apparently the baby of the family, has a couple of torrid secrets of her own. Neighbor Jerry (Dan Feraldo) unwittingly fans the flames, as everybody thinks he's out for widow Helen's money.
Olson's got lots of under-stories to tell, and sometimes he's a little longwinded in doing so—but director Bob Christiansen's meat-and-potatoes staging keeps the overage in check. He's coaxed a very solid turn from Neal Sullivan, whose Dad has clearly traded his distantness in life for something a bit more reflective in death. Through Carl, he'll eventually reveal his earthly feelings for Helen—and just as she's done throughout the show, Helen (Eileen Ivey) will stoically take it in stride. Ivey is an absolute joy to watch; there's not a single affected move in her performance as Helen's memory inexorably fades, and those giant glasses only magnify the precious befuddlement in her faraway eyes. Great work.
So, OK. Maybe it's all a little corny, what with this group of stay-at-home ruralites facing metropolis-size realities. But A Prairie Home Companion made corny cool, because Keillor colored it with such a down-home honest face. A Nice Family Gathering captures the same flavor, only live, and it features a cast that works its heart out to boot.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Nov. 8. A Nice Family Gathering runs through Nov. 14 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave. in Chula Vista. $15. www.onstageplayhouse.org.