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REVIEW: Familial and familiar on stage at The Phipps

Carl Lundeen, portrayed by Austin Vockrodt, finds his family Thanksgiving will have an added complication when Dad, played by Jon Aton, makes a visit, as a ghost in “A Nice Family Gathering.” The play at The Phipps runs through Sept. 23. Rebecca Mariscal / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 4
Jill, played by Toni Trussoni, enjoys her holiday drink as husband Michael, played by Danny Vopava, looks on in a production at The Phipps. “A Nice Family Gathering” follows the Lundeen family during the first holiday gathering since their dad died. Rebecca Mariscal / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 4
Mrs. Lundeen, played by Sarah Eschweiler, reminisces about her husband, played by Jon Aton, as he watches as a spirit. “A Nice Family Gathering” at The Phipps is directed by Gordon Hedahl. Rebecca Mariscal / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 4
The Lundeen family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner, with Dad making a special appearance as a ghost, in The Phipps production of “A Nice Family Gathering.” Pictured from left are Karen Biedermann as Stacy, Jon Aton as Dad, Toni Trussoni as Jill, Danny Vopava as Michael, Austin Vockrodt Lee as Carl, Sarah Eschweiler as Mom and Wes McClain as Jerry. Rebecca Mariscal / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 4

Pull up a seat to the family table, and be ready for a show, as The Phipps presents "A Nice Family Gathering," a story of one extraordinary family holiday that still maintains a relatable sense of ordinary.

As the undoubtedly Midwestern Lundeen family gathers for the first holiday since Dad passed away, the three siblings and Mom are dealing with a host of their own life problems. Financial trouble, infertility issues, job woes and health concerns all find their way to the dinner table, where an unexpected guest has joined.

Dad, played by Jon Aton, shows up to the Thanksgiving gathering as a ghost, though only middle child Carl, played by Austin Vockrodt Lee, can see him.

Meanwhile older brother Michael, played by Danny Vopava, is struggling with the money he owes to the IRS, while his wife Jill, played by Toni Trussoni, is experiencing a range of emotions due to her fertility treatments. Sister Stacy, played by Karen Biedermann, is left dealing with feeling overshadowed by the rest of her family. All of the kids are worried about Mom, played by Sarah Eschweiler, who is still grieving the loss of the husband she loved, though they never expressed that love in so many words.

Carl soon learns that is why Dad has returned — to tell Mom he loves her — and he wants Carl to help him.

Carl refuses, leaving Dad to watch over as the bickering, confessions and reminiscing that can only ensue when a family gathers in such close quarters.

All the drama unfolds in the family room and front porch of the Lundeen home, a set that is designed beautifully to look like a pleasant, inviting Midwest home. The set has all the details to make the audience feel at home, including a newspaper bearing the masthead Prior Lake Weekly Tattler, which features a regular column from Carl, and family photos, which appear to be of the cast themselves, hung on the living room wall.

The ghost in the room provides for plenty of humor as Carl reacts, often boisterously, to Dad's commentary, unheard by everyone else.

The physical comedy brings some of the biggest laughs of the night, from Jill's drunken stumbling to Carl's active, frustration-fueled rants to his father.

Amidst all the chaos, there's a real warmth to the production. Though the audience is seeing the Lundeen family at an extreme, they are still a family that anyone can relate to. The portrayal is authentic, and therefore, compelling.

Like most families, behind the awkward conversations and tense interactions, the Lundeens truly care for each other. The audience sees this in the tender, touching moments that arise from the disorder.

"A Nice Family Gathering" runs through Sept. 23, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Rebecca Mariscal

Rebecca Mariscal joined the Hudson Star Observer as a reporter in 2016. She graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in communication and journalism. 

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