By Daniel Skora
Mother Swenson has been gone nearly a year now and things have not improved much since her death. Her husband still misses her dearly. Relations between him and their overbearing daughter Kat have gotten to the point where she no longer comes by to visit. Younger daughter Brittney who lives at home thinks that her engagement to an ex-con janitor and her job as a Hooters girl are excellent lifestyle decisions. Mom believes she can be of help, not only to her family, but for herself. She’s currently in a kind of limbo, needing to perform a good deed in order to earn her angel wings à la Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. And she now believes that the good deed that will earn her those wings could be performed right in her very own home.
“Mom’s Gift” is the current presentation of Meadow Brook Theatre. A lighthearted comedy about death, life, family, and the healing of wounds old and new, Phil Olson’s play was written as a tribute to his own deceased mother. Mom is played by Cindy Williams, the Shirley half of the television sitcom “Lavern and Shirley” (and could it really be almost 35 years since the show last aired?). Williams has graced the Meadow Brook stage before, appearing in several “Nunsense” productions and has proven to be an audience favorite.
“Mom’s Gift” takes place in the living room and on the front porch of the Swenson home. Rather than in the author’s home state of Minnesota, where Olson’s plays are generally set, Meadow Brook has taken the liberty of setting the play in Michigan, giving the show a local flavor with several area references. Opening night had the yet-to-be-played playoff game between the Lions and the Seahawks inserted into the storyline. As it goes, dad is having a birthday, and a small group has gathered to celebrate. In addition to dad (Mark Rademacher), the lovable but ditzy Brittney (Franny Kromminga) is there (and delivers some of the play’s funniest lines). Trish (Monica J. Palmer), Mom’s caregiver before she passed on and who has kept in contact with the family ever since, brings food and good cheer. Neighbor Kevin (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), who claims to have had a grade school crush on Kat, also drops by to visit. But the most important person at the gathering is the eldest daughter Kat (Dani Cochrane). Not actually seeking to mend any fences with her father, she has come to the party because her therapist has required it. The impetuous Kat is under court-ordered anger management because of an altercation with a police officer. As it turns out, Kat turns out to be the only person who is able to see and talk with mom, a circumstance that’s the cause of much of the show’s comedy. Kat is the show’s vital force, the most vocal of all the characters. For those who might have seen Williamston Theatre’s not-too-long-ago production of “Summer Retreat”, Kat is very much like Shep, the character Cochrane played in the highly acclaimed comedy.
“Mom’s Gift” serves up good vibes, great performances, and a few unexpected twists. But for a few exceptions, the show is filled with g-rated situations and good-natured family ribbing. The show is funny, creatively realized, and filled with likable characters. As it heads toward its conclusion, the show mellows out considerably. Angels are not ones to linger, and promotions on the other side of the grave are always bittersweet.
Once again, Meadow Brook has provided a set that beautifully compliments the show. Kristen Gribbin’s design for the interior of the Swenson home is bright, welcoming and well-appointed. The outside porch necessary for several key scenes is nicely framed, and hints of the outside landscaping and the home’s brick foundation transform the entire stage into an attractive middle-class property.
The show is ably directed by Meadow Brook Theatre’s Artistic Director Travis W. Walter. Not wanting to miss an excellent opportunity to incorporate one of his signature closing send-offs, he has the cast engaging in a little festive crowd-pleasing choreography (by Tyrick Wiltez Jones) after final bows. Costume design is by Karen Kangas-Preston, lighting by Reid G. Johnson, and sound by Mike Duncan. Terry W. Carpenter serves as stage manager, assisted by Sarah Linn Warren.
“Mom’s Gift” runs through January 29th. Tickets are available by calling the Meadow Brook box office at 1.248.377.3300 or going online at www.ticketmaster.com. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in the city of Rochester.