The poet Robert Frost wrote: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
But they don't have to make it pleasant, as anyone who has experienced the forced joviality and underlying tension that can underscore some family holidays can attest.
Chicago native Sean Grennan ("Married Alive!") mines that treasure trove of angst and dysfunction in the holiday-themed dramedy "Making God Laugh," running at Fox Valley Repertory in St. Charles.
Sibling rivalry and parental expectations figure prominently in the play, which chronicles the evolution of family members and their shifting relationships. The title comes from the expression: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
There is nothing subtle about "Making God Laugh," which unfolds during holiday get-togethers over the course of 30 years and makes use of frequently forced humor that recalls a 1970s sitcom. I found the hyperactive humor, stock characters and pop-culture clichés tiresome. However, the sustained laughter from the near-capacity opening-night audience suggests I was in the minority.
The action in director John Gawlik's production opens in a tidy Chicago bungalow belonging to empty-nesters: Ruthie (a nicely terse Caron Buinis), a perfectionist who sugarcoats her criticism, and her accommodating husband Jimmy (Michael Joseph Mitchell). It begins on Thanksgiving 1980, with the couple welcoming home their children. Richard (Tom Moore) is a Pacer-driving, pinkie-ringed, former high school football hero still searching for his niche. Tom (a wry, understated Jesse Dornan) is a seminary student acknowledged as "the good son." Daughter Maddie (played by Christina Gorman, who comes off a bit shrill) is an aspiring actress and part-time teacher whose career, weight and fashion choices fall short of her mother's standards.
Following at 10-year intervals are a series of more-bitter-than-sweet reunions -- each marked by requisite cultural references and all of them involving confessions or inadvertent revelations of long-held secrets. The funniest takes place on New Year's Eve, 1999, when camo-clad Rick (a deliciously over-the-top performance from Moore) fears a Y2K catastrophe and turns his parents' home into a bunker.
Predictably, the most poignant -- the de rigueur reconciliation in a by-the-numbers drama -- occurs last. In addition to providing the most genuine moments (in a play that could use more of them), the scene nicely showcases Mitchell, a good actor underused as the put-upon Jimmy, whom Grennan mostly relegates to serving dip and drinks. Still, I found Grennan's sentimental ending to be a bit of a cop-out in its depiction of family rapprochement resulting not from a conscious choice, but from a condition.
Then again, I'm in the minority.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.