SALT LAKE CITY — You know the feeling of landing at the airport in your home state on Christmas Eve. It’s like there’s gingerbread in the air. You feel like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, running through the street giddy to be alive and back at the site of all your childhood nostalgia. You cross the threshold, eager to embrace those nearest and dearest to your heart. And then you’re unceremoniously slapped in the face with a wet mess of dysfunction you’d selectively forgotten when you left your family safely across state lines for the majority of the year.
In Pygmalion Theatre Company’s A Night with the Family, Donny (Jay Perry) comes home for the Holidays only to run headlong into his family’s quirks and old conflicts. Donald, Sr. (Andrew Maizner), is a New Age spiritualist, constantly quoting personality type theories, listening to recordings of “soothing” flutes and chimes, and surreptitiously forcing herbal remedies down family members’ throats. Donny’s mother, Diane (Teresa Sanderson) has taken to publicly flaunting physical affection with her much younger boyfriend Antoine (Jesse Peery). And Donny’s older sister, Bree (Elise Groves), is just trying to keep her four sick children and husband in bed while celebrating some semblance of holiday festivities with her family.
Matthew Ivan Bennett’s script is set in Salt Lake City, and all the characters and themes felt very familiar. Visually, the play couldn’t have been put together any better. The scenic design (Kit Anderton) of Donald, Sr.’s house was exactly like the cluttered home of an empty nester who keeps buying things for children who aren’t around anymore and uses his free time to half-take-up new and expensive hobbies. The costumes (Teresa Sanderson) were a bit uncanny—Bree’s Old Navy holiday t-shirt, Diane and Antoine’s matching tracksuits, Donny’s thirty-something casual attire—everyone was dressed exactly like someone you would encounter looking at the Christmas lights on Temple Square.
Even though all the themes in the play were familiar—the sister who’d become a Mormon for her husband, the commitment-phobic brother, and the continuing conflict between decades-since-divorced parents—this play felt more like a cartoon adaptation of real life than like a window into someone’s life. This was often quite humorous – with Donald, Sr. directing his children that an item could be found in the “North pile” of clutter, and Bree forbidding any slight cursing or even fake swear words within earshot of her children. But occasionally, the cartoonishness became a bit too detached from the story’s theme for me to find it applicable anymore. What I mean is that I definitely know several Utahns who preach that “natural cures” are more effective than visiting a doctor, so Donald, Sr. was a humorous hyperbole. But I don’t actually know very many well-educated, high functioning individuals whose family conversations regularly escalate into violence, so when the family repeatedly transitioned from words to blows, the humor wasn’t as strong as I think the playwright or the directors (Lane Richins and Laurie Mecham) intended. Don’t get me wrong: I find grown men fencing with household implements just as funny as the next person, but a person can only be chased around a couch so many times over the course of one evening before the joke becomes a bit tired.
Still, many of the play’s themes hit home. Andrew Maizner played Donald, Sr., as an oddly accessible, doting father whose driving motivation was simply to protect his children from unnecessary pain. Even though his methods were sometimes meandering, and his hilariously sharp wit sometimes belied his paternal compassion, his kind intentions were always apparent. I found Elise Grove’s Bree to be the most relatable of the bunch. As the oldest child who felt responsible for fixing everything, she still felt compelled to win her parents’ approval as she made her own choices and built her own family.
If I were to make a wish list for future performances of this play, the one thing on it would be more even pacing: even though I enjoyed the performance, tempers were high so constantly that I found myself clinging to the few moments of calm when I could catch my breath and come down off the adrenaline. While Mecham and Richins directed some very effective physical humor, there was just so much of it that I didn’t always find it to be an effective tool for either humor or storytelling. Over all, my favorite scenes were those where Bennett’s clever and poignant dialogue took center stage. The characters and themes within A Night with the Family are ones I think all audiences, but especially those in Utah, will find familiar and touching.
Note: Pygmalion Theatre Company recommends this play for mature audiences.