It’s a frequent, and some might say overused, setup in film and theater: the annual family holiday gathering at which warm memories are undermined by simmering conflicts.
That’s the basis for “Making God Laugh,” which opened last Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre. We watch a family get together for holidays at roughly 10-year intervals — holiday gatherings that are full of tradition, hilarity, shifting fortunes and ultimately sadness.
The Rep’s season-opening production, directed by Dawn Farr, struggles at times to find a rhythm, undoubtedly because Farr had to deal with an unusual number of casting issues and illness while putting the play together. This is a show that will get better night by night.
As it is, Farr was able to tap good people for these colorful characters. Christine Boos, a Rep veteran, is Ruthie, a mother of three who barely conceals a mean streak behind her apparent flightiness. Olivia Renken is perfectly fine in her Rep debut as Maddie, the daughter who never quite measures up to her mother’s expectations.
Matthew Marshall is Richard, the son who can’t seem to find his way in life, and Brian Brown is Thomas, who pleases his mother by entering the priesthood. Brad Cole is Bill, Ruthie’s sensible husband.
The play, written by Sean Grennan, takes place from 1979 through 2010 in a Midwestern town. As the family reunites for each holiday, we watch them fight, make up, form shifting alliances, drift apart and always find their way back home.
The pop culture landmarks of each era are played for laughs — Richard drives a Pinto and urges investment in Enron rather than upstart Google, TV shows and stars are frequently mentioned, sports heroes come and go — in a way that can be quite funny, if occasionally predictable.
Part of the fun for the audience is guessing how the family members will change from scene to scene. Will Maddie ever produce the grandchildren her mother wants? Will Thomas be a good priest? Will Richard ever get sober?
The major change that finally does take place, though, makes for a somber final scene, with few laughs and a situation that many families have had to face.
Ruthie, who starts the play just wanting to make everything perfect, reaches a point at the end where she finally feels everything is exactly that: perfect.
This show is not perfect, but neither is life, and it that regard “Making God Laugh” perfectly mirrors the world we know.