By J. Scott Hill
Oh interwebs, there is no such thing as a trustworthy citation anymore.
The phrase “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” is attributed to everyone from Woody Allen to Albert Einstein. Likewise, the adage “Home is where you hang your hat” is ostensibly the brainchild of either Will Rogers, Mark Twain, or the fictional character Dr. Emilio Lizardo from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The rejoinder “Home is where you hang your head,” however, is consistently attributed to Groucho Marx. Groucho Marx (who made God, and everyone else, laugh pretty much all the time) grew up in a home with four brothers, which no doubt colored his funny, though miserable concept of home.
In Making God Laugh — now in its Chicago-area premiere at Theatre at the Center and produced in association with First Folio Theatre — playwright Sean Grennan paints a picture of home that is beyond the simple misery of Marx. These characters live in the realm of Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” combined with a special kind of contemporary dysfunction. The show peeks in on a family every ten years or so after the nest is empty, starting in 1980 and continuing through roughly the present day. This is the story of adult children coming home to Mom and Dad’s for family gatherings — special meal holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and “Easter.” The adult children find that their paths in life aren’t always the ones on the maps they drew when they were twenty. The parents’ lives plug along more predictably than do their children’s, but are not without their shares of roadblocks and detours.
As in his libretto for Another Night before Christmas, produced by Theatre at the Center last year, Grennan proves himself to be a master of the back-and-forth of dialogue. (Another Night Before Christmas – REVIEW – Chicago Stage Review) Funny things are said by funny people.Spiteful words stick in loved ones like darts shot from a blowgun. Sean Grennan’s characters listen to each other and respond to what is said to them — unless not paying attention is that character’s particular flaw, as is the case with the Mom, Ruthie.
Ruthie is played by Peggy Roeder, who originated the role in Making God Laugh’s world premiere with the Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisconsin last summer. Peggy Roeder is a grand dame of Chicago theatre with memorable credits not only onstage but on both the large and small screens (notably, the piano teacher in Groundhog Day). Ruthie is a sniping bitch (especially to her daughter) masquerading as a June Cleaver-type; Peggy Roeder is exceptional, subtle, hilarious, and heartbreaking.
Peggy’s husband, Jimmy, is played by veteran actor Craig Spidle. Jimmy found the love of his life in Peggy and has grown accustomed to going-along-to-get-along if that means she keeps him around, no matter what kind of snarky throw-away insults she may spew. Jimmy is an ineffectual father, but Spidle’s portrayal of Jimmy is ineffectual without seeming particularly soft. That difference makes all the difference.
Erin Noel Grennan reprises her role as the daughter Maddie from the original Peninsula Players production of Making God Laugh. She is an award-winning actor in her own right who, being the playwright’s sister and confidant, has a particularly intimate knowledge of how these characters developed and what their backstories are. Like David and Amy Sedaris, Sean and Erin Noel Grennan create amazing art with each other and without each other. Maddie is arguably the character who changes the most throughout the course of the four time-markers of Making God Laugh. Grennan could not be a better choice for the role.
The two sons, Tom and Ricky, are played by Kevin McKillip and Joe Foust. These two actors have a history together, both being involved in several productions with the Peninsula Players and with First Folio Theatre, notably starring together last spring in First Folio’s tremendous production of The Woman in Black. (The Woman in Black – REVIEW – Chicago Stage Review)
Kevin McKillip’s Tom begins Making God Laugh in the seminary, his mother referring to him as “Father Tom” even before graduation. The echoes of “Uncle Tom” resonate through the moniker Father Tom in some rather uncomplimentary ways. Father Tom is the good son and Kevin McKillip shows the burden of that title every step of the way in each phase of life.
The always-entertaining Joe Foust is on fire in Making God Laugh. Apparently, feeling the pressure in the 1980 scene of wearing what appears to be Dan Ackroyd’s old hair (note: Wig Designer Kevin Barthel has moments of genius in this production), Joe Foust is a force upon the stage. This production would have run the risk of becoming The Joe Foust Show starring Joe Foust had the rest of the cast not been composed of some of the finest talent in Chicago theatre.As it stands, Joe Foust’s character is the most different from decade to decade and also the most same, no small feat to be pulled off as phenomenally as he does.
With an all-star cast performing a hot new script, Making God Laugh is a delightful, at times poignant, dramedy. This is a story of life’s changes of direction, the role reversals of parents and children, the primacy of the reality of now versus the memories of the past and the predictions of the future, and the importance of a family breaking bread together. As Groucho Marx said (if the interwebs can be trusted in such matters), “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”
(“Making God Laugh” runs through June 10 at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana. 219-836-3255.)
Making God Laugh production photos by Michael Brosilow.
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Making God Laugh – Theatre At The Center – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago