Phil Olson is not a well-known playwright, and most of his output has involved rewriting classics into the rather hyperlocal Bunyan Bay, Minnesota, where the main activities are being really cold, complaining about being really cold and ice fishing. I’m not exaggerating: A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol is a rewrite of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where the lead character hallucinates visits from ghosts while in a coma resulting from falling through the ice in a fishing accident. That’s part of a series, too, including Don’t Hug Me, A Don’t Hug Me County Fair, Don’t Hug Me I’m Pregnant, and Don’t Hug Me We’re Married, all of which are probably more palatable than his Apollo Creed v. Mothra about which I know nothing other than the title. He wrote two somewhat mirror-image plays, A Nice Family Gathering with a dead husband who spends the play on-stage as a ghost and Mom’s Gift with a dead wife who spends the play on-stage as a ghost; one could hardly be surprised, given this playwright’s predilection for milking every last drop out of an idea, if these two ghosts become a couple in the afterlife and die happily ever after.
Mom’s Gift is heavily influenced by It’s a Wonderful Life to the extent that two of the characters explicitly make fun of it. Mercifully, it has nothing to do with either Minnesota or ice fishing, and as performed by Attleboro Community Theatre is set in a suburb of Boston where there is a Patriots-Jets game on television in the next room. Despite serious deficiencies in the script, a fairly good play miraculously manages to wriggle out. Olson’s strength is highly artificial but clever and witty dialogue, which is a good fit for community theater, more Noel Coward than David Mamet (although ACT did Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross quite successfully in 2015). Indeed, Mom’s Gift would be PG-rated but for the antics of the elderly but sex-starved “Mrs. Norquist” (Anne Faiella), who is vaguely reminiscent of the Teddy Roosevelt character in Arsenic and Old Lace, except that she wants to be a Rough Rider in very much not the G-rated sense.
The show opens with “Kat” (Ellen Robinson), the 30-ish adult daughter of “Dad” (Johnny Bender), whose more-or-less-60th birthday party she has been ordered to attend by her therapist, whom she is seeing as part of an anger management program under a court-ordered diversion program to avoid criminal charges. They last saw each other 11 months ago at the funeral of “Mom” (Liz Parent), Dad’s wife and Kat’s mother. Also attending the party are Kat’s younger sister “Brittney” (Kimmi Roche) who uses her position as a Hooter’s waitress in a succession of networking opportunities, neighbor “Kevin” (Jay DiLisio) with whom Kat had mutual crushes on each other in 6th grade and is now Dad’s golfing partner, and “Trish” (Karen DiOrio) who was Mom’s nurse for the few weeks before she died. Aside from Kat’s court-ordered therapy, the unusual thing about the party is that it is attended by Mom in the form of a ghost who can only be seen and heard by Kat, who understandably thinks she’s losing it and hallucinating. Mom, like Clarence Odbody in It’s a Wonderful Life, has been sent to fulfill a “mission” before she can become an angel but, unlike Clarence, is not too sure what it is.
Mom’s Gift is a surprisingly serious comedy that keeps you laughing until it doesn’t. Parent as Mom and Robinson as Kat work brilliantly together as the characters at the heart of the drama, and Roche at Brittney pulls off the slow revelation that she is not as much of an airhead as everyone thinks she is. DiLisio as Kevin does as well as he can with a character who is almost a cardboard prop, as does DiOrio whose character has even less depth and is essentially a plot device. Bender as Dad is given more substance by the script to work with, and he is effective when the character displays emotion, but has trouble conveying the hidden depth of the character when the script treats him, too, like a cardboard prop; Bender also is undeniably miscast as he looks far younger than the 60-ish medical doctor he is playing.
Faiella as Mrs. Norquist thoroughly embraces the ridiculous character and plays her so over-the-top that the portrayal becomes a wink and a nod to the audience where one can almost see the thought process of the playwright: “I’ve got fairly realistic characters who say really clever things that are presciently revealing about themselves and a plausibly interesting plot that actually goes somewhere and makes sense, even if it depends upon a ghost who may or may not be an hallucination, so I need to artificially inject annoying comic relief to make sure that no one watching this play could mistake me for that high-falutin’ Shakespeare guy.” Faiella has had meatier roles, notably her excellent “Nurse Ratched” at ACT in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 2016, but even she cannot save a character who should have been excised from the script in the first place. Probably the best thing I could say about the character of Mrs. Norquist is that, unlike Teddy Roosevelt, at least she is not burying yellow fever victims in the basement.
In the end, though, ACT’s Mom’s Gift is an enjoyable comedy performed well, with characters who are fun to watch and dialogue that is often hilarious. Olson has what it takes to be a decent playwright with the benefit of some constructive editing that would rein in his willingness to pursue cheap, farcical laughs at the expense of his own characters and plot. What saves Mom’s Gift is that, despite the best efforts of the playwright to bury them, there are characters and plot.
Mom’s Gift, by Phil Olson, directed by Emily Lamarre, Attleboro Community Theatre, performances at Ezekiel Bates Masonic Lodge, 71 N. Main St., Attleboro, MA. Through Mar 2. About 2h10m including 20m intermission. Municipal off-street parking. Refreshments and soft drinks available. Telephone: (508) 226-8100 E-mail: AttleboroCommunityTheatreACT@gmail.com Web site: attleborocommunitytheatre.com; Facebook event: facebook.com/events/398109760766184 Tickets: squareup.com/market/acttickets